Saturday, January 28, 2012

Uganda Dispatch: The Last One

In Mbale, we waited for the bus to come. Then we waited some more. Pushing past families clutching chickens and baggage alike, we asked the woman at the counter when the 5:00pm bus would actually arrive (it was already 6:30). “Soon!”, was the answer we received. Something led me to believe otherwise. Later, we were informed the bus would roll into town around 8:00pm, then it was 9:00pm and then 10:30pm. After spending two weeks “roughing it”, we opted to push our ticket until the next day and spend the night in one of Uganda’s finest hotels (at $60 a night!). 

The next morning I hit the dusty dirt roads for 5 miles – my first run since getting sick – and I began to ponder my fitness or lack thereof. This trip has certainly taken a jab at that. We passed the day laying by the pool reading and sleeping. Eventually I took to the bar stool where I relaxed and drank tall bottles of Bell while watching news about Africa on the TV. The bartender turned the channel to CNN International and I learned that Newt was closing in on Romney in the Keystone State. I sucked down my last drop of lager…anything to pass away the hours. When the time came, we jumped on the back of bodas (mopeds) and drove back to the bus stop. There were two buses in front of the depot. One bus was being worked on by a grease covered Ugandan wielding a giant monkey wrench. Parts of that bus littered the filthy street. The other bus (our bus!) was thankfully being loaded with baggage. Surprisingly (or not so much), we learned the bus from the night before had never come. Some families had literally slept on the street all night and into the next day. In time, we boarded the tank and finally we were on our way to Nairobi, Kenya. The trip would take 12 hours and neither of us would sleep a wink all night due to the state of Uganda’s “highways”. Our bus broke down 3 times en route and passengers were forced to evacuate to push the bus at times. When we finally arrived in Nairobi (at 5:30 the next morning) we were exhausted. With Uganda finally behind me I had a chance to reflect…

In many ways, things in East Africa don’t make sense, especially in Uganda (at least to this stuck-up Westerner). When driving (or walking) down any road, one sees Ugandans relaxing on their stoop watching the world go by. What their watching/waiting for, I don’t know, but they’re often in groups. Some drink a thick porridge of moonshine from 10am until sunset. Others barter and sell goods directly next to another vendor bartering and selling the same thing. Why not move your cart a half mile away? Matatu (taxi) drivers would often negotiate a NEW rate AFTER they had already dropped you off. After one such episode we explained how the driver could have driven to Cairo and back in the time he had argued for an extra 50 shillings.

Unfortunately in Uganda, trash is thrown everywhere. It is really awful. Sometimes trash is thrown in one specific area and burned, but in others (mainly urban centers) trash literally litters the ground. One day our driver chucked an empty 1.5 liter bottle of water out of the car window as if it were an apple core. It landed in the Nile. I wanted to weep like the Indian in that famous commercial.

Ugandan roads (as noted earlier) are absolutely terrible. Often times half the road is missing, while other times giant crater-sized pot holes pepper the road so that the driver swerves ‘round them like a skier does with moguls. If the Ugandan government invested in their roads…well, it’d be a great thing. 

By and large, everyone I met was extremely honest and kind. Little girls guided us up mountains without being asked to, men came and gave us free milk and the local gentry, wherever we might be, were always willing to help you if one got lost. 

My time spent at the clinic was certainly eye-opening. Aside from my mother being a social worker/registered nurse at Cape Cod Hospital, I have no background in anything medical whatsoever, so my roll was strictly confined to filming the day to day affairs of the clinic. The pinnacle “medical moment” for me came when a woman showed up to the clinic carrying a 2-month old child dangerously, deathly, underweight. In fact, the child weighed as much as she did the day she was born. The mother was very poor and wasn’t eating enough food to provide adequate milk for her infant. Her breast-feeding neighbors won’t offer up their milk because apparently that is taboo (unless the mother has died) and neighbors won’t cough up a few shillings in order for the mother to supplement breast milk with goat milk because families are very independent. The woman’s husband doesn’t want to stop having children because a large family is apparently a sign of success. She’s already lost 2 children due to similar circumstances so there doesn’t appear to be an easy answer. I toured her home and saw where the family slept, ate and relieved themselves - dangerously close to where their 3 pet chickens did all of the same. The husband was nowhere to be seen, rumored to be in town drinking that toxic porridge. Above all else, this frustrated me the most. I left Uganda feeling a bit depressed albeit hopeful that the clinic might help turn the tide. 

I'll write one final dispatch summing up my time spent in Kenya, then it's back to humdrum writing about running.

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