Assign-Uganda 6

Bob Rackleff spent his summer volunteering in Africa.

August 28 – Week 12

Dear Friends

, It was a good week for work, getting down to the wire for completing the website, while the NAPE campaign to save one-fourth of Mabira Forest from being given away to a sugar corporation for a sugarcane plantation. But the massive police presence abated somewhat, and the cop count went down on my walks to and from work.  Our traffic police were back on Entebbe Road – I don’t know where they redeployed for three weeks – shaking down motorists to supplement their miserable salaries.  Back to the familiar and reassuring.

“God Grew Tired of Us” That’s the title of a documentary movie I saw at the American Recreation Association, a private club southeast of downtown, on Sunday (Aug 28).  It was outdoors on a screen a few feet from the terrace restaurant at the club, so I went early and had dinner before the movie. It was a DVD played on a laptop and projector, so a slightly higher-toned version of the movies shown in slum bars. It’s a terrific documentary — well-produced and powerful – and won an award at the Cannes Film Festival a few years ago.  It follows three young men who about 15 years ago fled southern Sudan as young boys, along with thousands of others.  The Sudanese Muslim government had decided to exterminate as many men and boys of the Christian south as they could and went on a killing rampage. Some 25,000 south Sudanese boys (from toddlers on up) escaped certain death to endure unimaginable deprivation as they walked 1,000 miles first into Ethiopia to live in refugee camps until that government got tired and ordered them to leave. Many of them starved or died of thirst or attacks by soldiers along the way. So they walked again through Sudan to Kenya, where they found refuge in camps. This group’s camp had about 10,000 boys in it. They survived by organizing to take care of each other, the older, stronger ones helping the others, forming surrogate families.  They fed and clothed the younger ones, nursing them through illnesses.


In the film, the older boys formed a “parliament” to debate issues, settle disputes or just talk.  In the Kenyan camp, they had used clothing donated by westerners, shelter and enough to eat. Up to that point, the film was stock scenes filmed earlier by reporters, and about as grim as it gets.  But the filmmakers begin their narration as the three young men are in their final months in camp. It showed them coping as best they could with grinding loneliness, uncertainty and hopelessness, forming up daily to look through lists posted on bulletin boards for their names.  Being on the list was their ticket to a developed country and a chance to build a new life. The three featured in the film come to America to build new lives, which they do – but not without making serious efforts to help those left behind.  One of the most poignant scenes was the reunion in the Pittsburgh airport of a son with his mother after over a dozen years of separation. Well, it was a terrific movie.  I recommend it.

A wedding in rural Uganda

A fellow volunteer up-country in Lira wrote this week about attending a traditional wedding that sounded fascinating. Paulette is a former Brit who became a New Yorker about 30 years ago, retired from commercial real estate there, who also worked for three years as Betty Friedan’s personal assistant (and has some wild stories about that).  She’s always good company and was along with us on our trip to Murchison Falls this weekend. Here’s Paulette’s description in italics: On Saturday, I was invited to attend the traditional marriage of my supervisor’s brother Bernard, in their ancestral village! I was picked up by the groom and Caxson, Moses and Peter (3 of my co-workers). The wedding was called for 12 noon – Ugandan time. We ran many errands first in Lira, including picking up the food because the caterers had mistakenly delivered it to another wedding at the town hall! We finally left for the village with a full truck with 6 men perched on top of the food! Don’t ask! We arrived at the village – about an hour’s drive – at 1 pm. No one had arrived yet! 2 tents had been set up with chairs and everybody’s sofas.

I was put in the front row, on a sofa and was told I was the guest of honor! I thought, what’s wrong with this picture! People started arriving – family members – lots of family members – over 100 of them. All dressed to the nines. The women wore the most beautiful colorful dresses with big satin sashes which denoted their individual tribe. All the guests shook my hand – I felt like a leftover from the colonial days! Suddenly all the women got up and left and went to the back of the area, to a traditional hut. The bride’s mother and her female relatives were in this hut. It was a special welcoming ceremony. They made sure I was in the hut to see this. Dancing, ululating, and general freakout occurred. Believe me, in a small grass hut, this was no mean feat with dozens of women participating. Despite the conditions I got some wonderful pictures.

This went on for some time then adjourned with a special dance when all the women left the hut and danced outside. I’m talking about old women dancing – not just swaying, but jumping up and down. It was very hot on Saturday, so I took on my dishrag look! The women then went back to their seats and the men then left. I was not invited to that because they were entering into the dowry negotiations!  This is where terms are agreed to on how many cows, goats, chickens and such are given to the bride’s family. I kid you not! After about an hour – really – we all went for about a 10 minute walk into a field to see the cows. I couldn’t find out the going rate for young women these days, but it was agreed that Bernard (the groom) was giving 13 extremely beautiful bovines to his beloved s family, including one fine looking bull with a huge pair of horns – an Ankola cow!

We all then went back to our seats then the bride and groom were lifted up into the air – a la Jewish ritual – but no chairs! They were carried into chairs then showered by dancing and ululating women with branches and flowers from the cashew tree. They were totally covered in this foliage and it had to be cleaned off of them. The bride was presented with a broom and wooden spoon – to signify her “new role” – no comment! Then there was general mayhem with major African dancing and singing. I was called the sister, because I cut a mean figure with the best of them! Then there were many speeches and introductions of the many aunts and uncles. I was also introduced. But I introduced myself as being President Obama’s representative to the wedding. I don’t think I was understood, but I laughed! By now it was dark – small lights had been set up – don’t forget there’s no power in villages or running water. The food was served. Now I became a traditional African woman. I ATE THE FOOD WITH MY FINGERS, which is the way most Ugandans eat. Ever eaten beans, rice and chickens gizzards with your fingers? No? Well try it. I skipped the goat and millet bread but I have to tell you the food was good! After people finished their meal, they left. Many had arrived in open trucks. They hauled themselves in and off they went. Some were old men and women who hoisted themselves into the bac’k of these trucks.

Bob, far right, with fellow AJWS volunteer Barbara Sahagan and NAPE executive Frank Muramuzi

I just don’t know how they do this. Their energy continues throughout their lives. I was told that some of the aunts were over a 100! So then a driver took me home. All my co-workers slept in the village. Fortunately I didn’t – I’m as native as the next person, but I really try to draw the line at using a latrine. My one experience of this horrible act ended with me trying to push a pig out of the latrine who wanted to use the same facility at the same time as me! So, my fellow Americans. This was my marriage experience.  I think about this event a lot. It is a legally recognized ceremony and technically is supposed to be followed up by a church wedding, but this is rarely done because of the lack of funds. If the husband dumps the wife after, say, 10 years and 10 children, he can ask for his dowry back and they have to give it back otherwise the bride’s family are taken to court. A bill currently in Parliament is trying to rescind this practice! Robert’s 10th Wedding Anniversary Robert Kugonza, NAPE program officer for water policy and staff for the African Rivers Network, invited me to his 10th wedding anniversary celebration on Thursday (Sept 1) at the Florida Hotel nearby on Entebbe Road.  The hotel has a landscaped side yard for special events, isolated by a high wall from the noisy chaos of the road, and the staff set out tables for the guests, plus a buffet table of traditional Ugandan dishes. Bob, far right, Bob at Uganda wedding with fellow AJWS volunteer Barbara Sahagan and NAPE executive Frank Muramuzi



I thought I was late, showing up 25 minutes after the designated beginning time.  I was the first to arrive, and it didn’t really fill up for another hour. Although three other NAPE staff were there, including executive director Frank Muramuzi, the guests were mostly personal friends from church (therefore the nonalcoholic refreshments), high school or university – so there was a warm, personal tone to the evening, with many affectionate reminiscences. There were prayers and speeches all around, including by me, then dinner.  Then more speeches, as the evening wore on to past 10 pm. Finally, I had to beg off and leave to get enough sleep before our early morning departure for Murchison Falls. Robert is a  quiet, unpretentious, intelligent man who married later than his friends, and they seemed genuinely happy about his marriage to Frieda.  It provided some more insights to daily Ugandan life.

The trip to Murchison Falls

Esther at every opportunity has been telling me to see Murchison Falls.  Whatever I do, I have to go there, she said.  She had been there about 10 years ago, while taking a break from an Ebola outbreak. There were five of us from Kampala, plus Paulette from Lira, who signed up with Red Chili Tours, which provided an 8-passenger van for the 350 km trip north from Kampala.  We rode with two others – Eric, who works for a security contractor for the U.S. State Department, and John, a retired Marine now working for a Defense agency.

Since without them I would have been the only guy – OK, I’m glad your dress fitting went well, really glad, and sorry about that lame boyfriend.  So I had the welcome break of several hours of guy talk – relative merits of the M-14, M-16 and M-4 rifles – be still my
heart!  Eric had been here for three months and, being Jewish, was delighted to have accidentally fallen in with a half-dozen Jews, the first he’d been with since coming here.  John was here for two weeks volunteer teaching at a Baptist Bible college in Jinja, and enjoyed the irony of being the only goy in the van; he assured us that he’s very, very pro-Israel.

The falls are due north, so the ride helped me see what northern Uganda – generally the poorest region – was like.  It was also mostly through the Rift Valley, a broad, low plain between the mountains of the east, hills of central Uganda, and the Albert Nile (and Democratic
Republic of Congo) of the west.  Not as rainy, the valley has some sugarcane, a lot of Ankole cattle and wood products from rapidly depleting forests.

There are only scattered villages and a few small towns, Masindi being the largest – a crossroads town with its four-block business district, a small army base, three banks, a small hospital, and a restaurant where we stopped for an OK lunch.  It’s also a sort of gateway to tourist destinations to the north and, to the west, the oil fields now under development in the Lake Albert area.

Numerous pine tree plantations caught my eye along the way.  Farmers having a tough time with bananas or maize are turning to pine trees – which require less water – planting them in orderly rows like we see throughout North Florida.  And, like in Florida, they plant them close
together, to maximize output per acre, with the result of a pine monoculture with no biodiversity – and no forest in 20 years, when the trees are cut down for poles, lumber or firewood. NAPE seeks to limit the spread of conventional pine plantations and especially their use as carbon credits, because they are monoculture substitutes for natural forests, which tree farmers clear-cut and spray for herbicides before planting the pines.  Biologists call them “coloniser” plants that crowd and shade out competing plants and suppress understory growth with accumulated pine needles; you can see that throughout North Florida

So there I was in the van, scribbling notes and taking photos of the pine plantations along the road, thinking about how include this in the website.  Some holiday!

Friday night at the Red Chili Camp

We seven (John stayed at the Paraa Lodge across the river) arrived at our camp at about 5 pm, dropped off our backpacks in our tents, ordered dinner from the restaurant (to be ready at 7:30), took in the view of the Nile and its valley below us, and walked down the dirt road to see more sights.  Our neighbors along the road were lots of baboons and warthogs and, in the river, some lounging hippos.

After walking back to camp, we got settled in at the terrace restaurant and our Shabbat dinner.  I brought candles, fine red wine (at least that’s what it said on the box), my yarmulke from the Abayudaya colony of Ugandan Jews in July, and the ingredients for martinis, vodka martinis, and gin/vodka and tonic. The martinis went first and tasted pretty good, if I say so myself.  Barbara brought a reasonable facsimile of challah.

We included Eric, who appreciated the improvised ritual, and we had a good time, as such dinners are supposed to be.  The weather was cooperative and the natural setting was excellent.

As we ended dinner and started for our tents, there was a huge female hippo – huge as in the size of a small mini-van – grazing in the middle of the tent area, which postponed settling into our tents. The staff made sure we didn’t stir up the hippo, which can kill people when they feel threatened by them.
Paulette later named her Hermione.

Hermione gradually wandered off, so we occupied our tents, I turned off my portable light, and drifted off to sleep – except that I woke up when she came back.  I heard what sounded like someone walking on crunchy snow at a steady pace but then realized it was something else.  It was a dark and cloudy night – a shot rang out.  No, that’s another story.  But it really was dark.

I couldn’t see Hermione, except in silhouette against the lights from kerosene lanterns in front of other tents, grazing slowly but audibly (crunch-munch, crunch-munch) for the next 15 minutes. She came up behind our tent, then around the other side, then back behind again, then on my side no more than 10 feet away, still crunch-munching without skipping a beat.

Sitting up in my bed, looking out through a mesh window, I was transfixed, especially when she cast a large shadow against our inside wall.  I also hoped that she would be gone by the time I needed to walk to the bathrooms/showers building in the middle of the night, which us old guys need to do at least once per night.  Fortunately, she was gone by then.

So that was our introduction to African nature up close. Hermione was the talk of the camp the next morning.

The Ugandan Kob (Kobus kob thomasi) is a subspecies of the kob, a type of antelope found in sub-Saharan Africa in Sudan, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. It is normally reddish-brown, in which it differs from other kob subspecies. An Ugandan Kob appears on the coat of arms of Uganda.

Saturday morning game viewing drive

We were up before dawn, collected our boxed breakfasts, and off in our van to the ferryboat landing.  Our guide joined us at the other side, and we were off for a marvelous four-hour drive along the winding park road with excellent visibility in all directions.  Unlike the dense forests of the park south of the Nile, in our destination it was grasslands.

Barbara kept a list of every species we saw.  The highlights for me were various species of antelopes (including the iconic Uganda kob, which graces the 100 shilling coin), herds of giraffes, water buffalo, elephants, warthogs, lots of gloriously colored birds, hartebeests,
two lions (a rare treat) – and down at the edge of the Albert Nile (fed by the Victoria Nile and Lake Albert) about 70 hippos soaking in a small inlet.  We left the van to walk to the water’s edge to take more photos of the hippos. Hermione was probably back home planning her next trip through our camp.

The rolling grasslands of that part of the park were a star attraction – interspersed with clumps of bushes and small acacia and other trees, with higher trees nibbled up to giraffe neck height. Everything in a healthy balance, and a Ugandan success story of good management.  The bush wars for three decades had nearly driven large mammals to extinction. Standing up in the van, we had unobstructed views of all this wildlife through the roof.   Whoever designed the pop-up roof for safari vans deserves a Nobel Prize.

Up the Nile to Murchison Falls

Afterwards it was back to the landing and the ferry across, we returned to the camp for a leisurely lunch – then to the landing again for the pontoon boat cruise upriver to Murchison Falls.  Along the way, the boat crew slowed down for riverbank wildlife sightings, which were numerous.  Everybody got excited about the crocodiles, except me.  Hah!  I’ve got alligators in my back yard a lot bigger than that!

We motored for about two hours upstream until we got to the falls, stopping about 300 meters short – underwater rocks beyond could sink the boat – and got off on some rocks to gape at the majestic torrent. It’s not high, like Sipi Falls we visited in July, but it roared and
splashed with great power.  Yes, Esther, I wore a life jacket.

We motored back to the landing in about an hour, where we got off on the opposite bank to visit the Paraa Lodge, where John stayed.  Perched on a high bluff, it’s a handsome colonial-era building with a large dining room and outdoor bar overlooking the
Nile.  I had a proper martini, after Iinstructed the bartender about the proper proportions (one part vermouth, four parts gin), relaxed with our group, and called Esther. About 10 years ago, she stayed there, taking a break from a grueling mission treating an Ebola outbreak, and nagged me (correction: suggested strongly, repeatedly and sweetly) to go there.  I have the photos to prove I was there.

Havdalah Saturday night

As the cognoscenti know, havdalah is a brief ceremony at sundown on Saturdays to celebrate the end of Shabbat.  We decided before leaving Kampala to hold it, to make up for the fact that we’ve had few chances to observe Jewish rituals here because of our different travel schedules, the hassle of getting to each others apartments scattered around Kampala, the lack of any Jewish congregation here, and our general laziness.

Shira, a former AJWS volunteer here who came back to work for the Clinton Foundation, organized our havdalah, which we improvised with what we had in hand.  No candles?  Well, flashlights would do.  No spices?  An empty Pringles can would do.  We still had wine, so we left the restaurant
for the lawn by our tents to form a circle and recite the appropriate prayers.

With us were, besides Eric, some new non-Jewish friends – Tyler, a grad student from Seattle, and two Belgian women, Daphne and (I forgot).  They seemed to enjoy this new adventure in Judaism.

So did Hermione the Hippo, who had returned and was crunch-munching her way on the same lawn she’d been through the night before. We waited until she had lumbered off into the dark, and we held our ritual – marking the end of an excellent, fulfilling day of Shabbat for
relaxation, fellowship, and contemplating the wonders of our natural world.

Back to the restaurant we had more conversation and sipping of drinks, then off to our tents for rest for another day at the park. I’ll write about our last day at Murchison Falls National Park in my next email.  In the meantime,

Best wishes,

Bob Rackleff


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