One of the most rewarding parts of my 10 weeks living in Kampala this summer was connecting with a local organization that is working to empower young people, particularly young women, with job skills training, education, and reproductive health tools.
In the Luganda language, yimba means “to sing.”
I learned about Yimba through my ex-pat friend Carissa, who was having some beautiful clothes made by some local tailors while we were both in Kampala this summer. She shared their Instagram with me (@yimba_uganda) and I was immediately hooked…I had to have some clothes made, too! Little did I know that the beautiful clothes were just the tip of the iceberg of the work this amazing organization is doing.
Yimba provides a structured training program in seamstressing and tailoring, providing technical training to young women and men so that they can become economically independent through their skills. Trainees complete a full course and graduate from the program with the all the skills needed to start their own tailoring businesses.
Through my conversations with members of the Yimba team, I learned about how feminine hygiene and reproductive education are key human rights issues. I had always known female reproductive health was a human rights issue on an intellectual level, but hearing about the issue first-hand made me realize just how much work there is to be done in this area. And Yimba is addressing this issue in a meaningful and impactful way.
Half of the world’s population are women. Women menstruate…every month. Yet somehow discussion of this simple fact of life is taboo in many parts of the world (yes, even in the U.S. still). In Uganda, as well as in many other parts of the developing world, lack of access to feminine hygiene products means that many girls have to stay home and miss school when they get their periods. This means that girls miss 25% of their schooling each year, and often drop out as a result.
Menstrual hygiene products as we know them in the U.S. (pads and tampons) are often unavailable in rural parts of Uganda. Even if they are available, they are too expensive. This means many girls must resort to leaves, grass, pieces of mattress, or even stones during this time of the month. And even if girls have access and can afford these products, there is the problem of how to dispose of used pads and tampons. As there is neither trash collection nor septic systems in most parts of the country, disposal of these used products presents a real hygiene problem—especially when you consider animals can often find their way into trash piles. Reusable hygiene products are the most hygienic, affordable, and environmentally sound solution to this multi-faceted issue.
In addition to the clothing items they make for customers and as part of their training, Yimba trainees produce reusable feminine hygiene products for distribution to rural areas of Uganda. As of the time of my visit to Yimba, almost 1,000 menstrual hygiene packets had been distributed to girls throughout rural Uganda. Yimba trainees sew a reusable, water-resistant liner using a special fabric imported from Kenya. Then, Yimba trainees sew 8 flannel fillers that can be washed and reused with the liner each month. The liner and fillers are distributed with soap, 2 plastic bags, and 3 pairs of underwear so that recipients have something to wear the pads on.
This simple packet of supplies can ensure that girls continue to go to school during their periods.
Yes, I am writing about panty liners and menstrual pads on my blog. But we all need to talk about this more! If something as simple (or dare I say “taboo”) as reusable menstrual pads allow girls to stay in school and get an education, then I am happy to shout about this from any rooftop.
Female empowerment and beautiful clothes—what more could anyone ask for?!
After scheduling my fitting with the Yimba team, I went to the fabric market located in central Kampala and picked out 12 yards total of 4 different kitenge fabrics. Kitenge is a traditional African fabric that is a bit thicker and comes in a variety of beautiful prints. I visited the market with my friends Nat and Jem—Nat was also on a kitenge-finding mission in anticipation of her visit to Yimba! While I was a bit overwhelmed by all the choices, I let the fabrics speak to me and ultimately decided on these:
The next step was to meet with the Yimba team to discuss what exactly I was looking for, and to have them take my measurements. I had one fabric in particular that was a bit too “waxy,” but the team had an amazing idea to create a beautiful trench coat out of it. I also ordered a shirt, a crop top + skirt combo, a long high-slit skirt, and a variety of purses, hair turbans, and neckties from the leftover fabric.
A week later, I went to try on their creations, and I could not have been more pleased! I have been enjoying my kitenge works of art ever since. I am still waiting for it to get cold enough in NYC to wear my trench!
Anyone who is visiting Kampala soon, I encourage you to visit the team at Yimba Uganda. Not only will you come away with some beautiful gifts for your loved ones (and yourself!) but you will have an opportunity to take part in something bigger than yourself—the chance to meet some amazing young Ugandan women and support the work they are doing to help other Uganda women stay in school and pursue their goals.
Since leaving this beautiful country, I carry Uganda with me in my heart every single day, and on the days I wear my Yimba clothes it shows on the outside as well!
You can learn more about Yimba and how to support their work here: http://www.yimbauganda.org. Also follow them on Instagram at @yimba_uganda !
This weekend, I had a chance to visit one of Uganda’s most famous natural attractions—Murchison Falls. (In keeping with the waterfall theme and because I’ve slacked on the blog this summer, I will also write about a trip I took about a month ago to Sipi Falls, a lesser-known but beautiful hidden gem in Uganda’s eastern region).
As my summer has been so busy with work (which has been super rewarding, and I love my officemates so much!) and the weekends have been filling up quickly, I was sad to think I wouldn’t have time to visit Murchison Falls at all before leaving Uganda. Imagine my joy when Diana suggested I take a day off to get one more good traveling weekend in! 🙂 Because Murchison is best visited over a minimum period of 2 nights and 3 days, I knew then that I could make it. My friend Daan put me in touch with his friend Nathan, who was taking a group there the following weekend. It was a done deal!
Friday morning, I met a group of 7 other travelers—4 Ugandan, 2 Lithuanian, and 1 Italian (I didn’t get asked about Trump once, thanks goodness! How refreshing!)—and we set off northwest for Murchison.
Our accommodations were in a small village just outside the park known as Pakwach in the West Nile region of Uganda. Pakwach is much more rural and less developed than many other parts of Uganda I’ve visited. The local villagers were extremely friendly, and even welcomed us to visit their homes and farms.
So, the guesthouse…each night at midnight, the electricity cut off, my water stopped running twice, and I was eaten by mosquitoes (fingers crossed I don’t get malaria!). I want to get all of the negative out of the way to go on to say that the food was AMAZING. Everything was so fresh. Home-cooked fresh fish from the Nile, chapatti, rice, beans, some type of greens called doh doh (not able to confirm this spelling on Google, lol), fresh fruits, and fresh cabbage (my favorite)! Breakfast in the mornings were fresh eggs, chapatti, and/or toast.
At 6:30am Saturday morning, we set out for the park entrance, eager to see some animals!!
Like in Queen Elizabeth, I saw a leopard up close…we were even able to see him walk down the branch from the tree!
We also saw a few pairs of lions in the far distance twice. You could only see them through binoculars. Our guide informed us it was mating season, and these pairs had been spotted together over the course of the last week. * Cue “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” from the Lion King*
One amazing thing that Murchison Falls had that Queen Elizabeth did not have was giraffes! There were so many, and they would come very close to our truck.
I also saw many elephants, buffalo, kob, bushbuck, and waterbuck. We even saw a hyena!
To me, animals will always be the highlight of any safari. But the main waterfall at Murchison certainly gives the animals some competition! After lunch, we drove up to the top of the falls—where the entire force of the Nile river rushes through a rock crevice only 6 meters wide and crashes 53 meters below, to continue its flow north through South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt.
Murchison Falls is the location of 2 historic events I was totally geeking out about before visiting.
It’s the scene of the filming of the 1951 movie The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Bogart won his only Oscar (Best Actor) for his performance in this movie. My mom raised me on the old, classic movies, and The African Queen was one of my favorites of them all! We had it on VHS tape, until the day my black lab puppy Scout decided to chew it up when I was about 8 years old. So the family joke was that Scout’s favorite movie was The African Queen too! I thought of him (that hungry puppy grew to be about 125 pounds and passed away a few years ago…I grew up with him!) as I stood at the falls and took in all the scenery…I know he would have loved it. RIP Scout!
Murchison Falls is also the location of Ernest Hemingway’s double plane crash in 1954. Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary, were in a charter plane exploring the terrain and were flying low over the falls, when the wing caught something from below and sent the plane crashing. No one was hurt, fortunately. Then, the rescue plane that picked them up the next day crashed too! Again, no one was hurt, fortunately. Talk about bad luck though! (Or maybe it was karma…if you’re as interested in Hemingway’s personal life as I am, I recommend this fictional account based on actual events.)
#FAKENEWS….They didn’t die!!
Last month, I took off on a solo hiking day trip to Sipi Falls, located in Kapchorwa district, northeast of the major town of Mbale near the border of Kenya. My faithful boda guy Calvin picked me up at 5:45am and drove me to meet my driver for the day, Moses. Moses and I then continued on for the 5 hour drive to Sipi, and we had a lot of time to talk in the car. Moses even taught me some Lugisu, the native language of the Bugisu tribe of Mbale (like Luganda is the language of the Buganda people of central Uganda, which I’ve been learning a bit). Lugisu sounds similar to Luganda, because both languages are derived from the Bantu language group.
After passing the giant Mount Elgon, which is believed to be the oldest extinct volcano in East Africa, we arrived in Sipi, where I met up with my guide Juma. Juma is a native of Sipi and knew literally everything about the falls and the surrounding area. The hike to and around each of the falls took about 4 hours total. The hike took us across farmland and through local villages. The fees paid to hike the falls go back to the people who live on the land and open it up to visitors. The lush green of the land was striking.
There was a pool between the first and second waterfall, where local women were washing their clothes. Sometimes visitors will swim here, but I didn’t want to disturb these ladies. I sat with them for a while before thanking them for letting me visit and continuing on.
The second waterfall had a cave!
The third waterfall was by far the most difficult to access. It was very hilly, and the day had gotten hot by now. Plus, something about the soil was super slippery, and I kept falling! Juma gave me some hilarious advice—“walk with less energy!” Those of you who know me know I’m a fairly energetic person, so I tried to put a bit more chill in my step, and it worked! I didn’t fall anymore. I was blown away by the fact that, as I struggled in my sneakers with a small backpack, local women would pass by barefoot with loads of freshly harvested crops loaded on top of their heads, effortlessly scaling the slopes. Talk about staying humble!
Sipi is also well-known for its coffee, and Juma offered me a tour of the coffee farms, but I was so exhausted by this point that I opted to head back to Kampala. I was so hungry because I hadn’t eaten all day!! Moses and I stopped in Mbale and bought the most delicious fresh Rolex (not the watch, but a Ugandan delicacy made out of egg and chapatti) and fried cassava. I bought dinner for both of us for the equivalent of just 1 US dollar (~3,600 shillings).
I got back home around 10, took a hot shower, and crashed into bed after such a full day.
There’s a narrative about Africa told by the West that continues to leave out important details, at best, or misrepresent the continent and its people, at worst. Westerners seem to relish, to some extent, the pull at the heartstrings that comes when footage streams across the television of starving orphans wandering barefoot along the dirt roads of some remote village here. I say “relish” because seeing these images and then sending money, clothing, missionaries, or whatever makes many Westerners “feel good” because they are “doing something” to “help” those in need.
The Africa I know is strong enough to help itself.
The narrative of Africa as helpless needs to stop. Businesses here can grow on their own, but not as long as foreign aid is given in such a way that depresses local economies, and not as long as African businesses are effectively locked out of the global economy. (For example, Amazon and Paypal may say they operate here, but from conversations I’ve had they don’t really, which prevents local entrepreneurs from expanding operations. Sadly, the people I spoke with believe this is all because people think they are being scammed if they make online payments to “someone in Africa” so these companies see no need to invest in infrastructure here.) Local economies here can’t grow as long as the Western world keeps telling itself Africa “needs” us more than we “need” them.
My first night in Kampala, my roommate and I ordered pizza from Jumia, an online food delivery service that functions just like Seamless, GrubHub, or Delivery.com. I have to admit I was surprised to “find this in Africa,” but really it was just the beginning of me checking my own ignorance at the door.
Most Ugandans I have met have a cell phone (and no, I haven’t been in Kampala the whole summer…I’ve travelled to some remote villages and small towns too!) There is also pretty good cell service throughout most of the country. But you don’t see this on TV back in the USA.
I’ve spent many afternoons at Kabira Country Club and Acacia Mall here in Kampala—my favorite places to relax. They are frequented by both “muzungu” families and black families. But you don’t see this on TV back in the USA. I admit these places are evidence of wealth disparity, but America has these problems too, and it doesn’t help to pretend that these places don’t or can’t exist in a place like Uganda. The question should be about upward mobility instead of denying, or not caring enough to find out, that there is development like this already here.
It’s true corruption is a huge problem. One reason there are so many potholes in so many of the roads here (at least the ones that are paved) is that a lot of civil servants “pay themselves” from the allocated funds. But Westerners need to stop paying lip service to being concerned about corruption. There may not be much “we” can do about this, but I’d suggest at a minimum to start paying attention to news reports when another dictator “wins” an election, or when a ruler “refuses” to step down after losing a monitored, democratic election. We have to first start caring by paying attention. Who knows what may happen when the world opens its eyes and starts speaking up about the things that matter? From many conversations I’ve had, it’s not that Africa doesn’t want the world to send aid or intervene in some way; rather, it’s that they prefer to be empowered to help themselves.
And it’s true there is a lot of poverty here, but there is also a lot of innovation. There’s an education problem (there is in the USA too) but Ugandans are educated. In fact, most Ugandans I’ve met speak and write with better English than a lot of people I know in the USA. And they are all multi-lingual—a skill severely lacking in the USA.
There are 54 nations on this continent, and I’ve only spent time in Uganda this summer (I’ve visited Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Egypt before, though), so my experiences here are informing my broader opinions about how the West approaches the continent. But we do need to check ourselves each time we are about to buy into this narrative that Africa is the “dark continent,” dying from AIDS and starvation. While there are areas where humanitarian crises dominate (like South Sudan), we need to stop pitying the continent. The last thing Africa, or Uganda for that matter, needs in a savior from the West.
I’m not saying aid should stop, or that people should stop taking service trips here for humanitarian or religious reasons. But we should stop and think about our motives and be realistic about how, and if, “our work” from the West is really helping countries like Uganda grow and develop organically on its own. And I think we should start by actually paying just as much, if not more, attention to what’s going on politically in Africa in the news as we do to those heart-rending videos of starving children in orphanages. If Africa is allowed to grow and develop on its own, more families here will be able to provide for their kids.
The narrative needs to change. I ask everyone who has been reading my blog or following my Instagram and Facebook posts over the summer to ask me more about my time here. It’s not all destitution! The narrative of the West needs to portray Africa as a peer, not as a charity project, and it starts with how we all discuss this amazing continent together.
This past weekend, I went on my ideal mini-vacation—a 3-day excursion to Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) in the Western Rift Valley of Uganda along the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I booked the trip a few weeks ago, as I knew my time here was winding down and a safari was at the top of my list of things to do this summer! I was able to see the Big 5 on safari in Zimbabwe and South Africa in 2015, but I had yet to see a male lion in person. This topped my list of “things to do,” and I got so much more out of this trip than I anticipated.
I booked the safari through the Red Chilli Hideaway Hostel (which is actually more like a hotel), located on the south side of Kampala bordering Lake Victoria. As the safari was leaving at 6:30 am the following morning, they offered me a free room for Friday night! Because our internet died in the office, Diana was gracious enough to let me leave a few hours early so I could enjoy the pool at Red Chilli and get some sun. They also served delicious pizza by the pool, which I enjoyed, of course.
The next morning started before dawn at 6:30 am as we set off southeast from Kampala on the Masaka highway toward the DRC. I slept all the way to the Equator (about 2 hours). We stopped here to take pictures, as the rest of our tour group (4 Belgian girls and a German dad and daughter) had never been to the Equator! As this was my 5th time crossing the Equator (!) I took the chance to grab coffee instead. We then continued on, passing through Masaka (where I had visited with my office for the UN OHCHR conference a few weeks before), the turn off for Lake Mburo (good memories from last month here!), Mbarara (the second largest city in Uganda), and finally to QENP.
The drive was sooooo long…9 hours to be exact. The road past Mbarara was full of potholes, so the driving went even slower here.
Fortunately, I was able to sit in the front for the entire trip with our driver/guide Noor, so I was able to take in all of the views from my open window on the passenger side.
We passed the most gorgeous tea plantations that covered the hills and plains of the Western Rift Valley like a blanket of green in the Bushenyi District. We were actually able to walk through one on the third day when passing back through, but here are some pictures of what these fields look like.
Tea production is becoming a huge part of the Ugandan economy. Indians introduced tea to Uganda in the 19th century, yet production almost stopped in the 1970s as war devastated the country and the ruthless dictator Idi Amin expelled all Asians from the country, confiscating much of their property in the process. Tea production picked back up when stability returned in the 1980s. While many of the larger estates are currently owned by foreign Indian companies, there is a big effort to ensure local ownership and to support Ugandan producers, particularly small farmers. It is estimated Uganda is currently producing tea at a rate of 10% of its potential capacity, so there is a lot of room for expansion. Sadly, global climate change may halt Uganda’s ability to produce tea as soon as 2050 if it continues at the current pace.
Before arriving at our accommodations at the Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge, we stopped by the salt mining lake at the village of Katwe.
The salt lake was formed by a volcanic eruption about 10,000 years ago, and the mining activity employs hundreds of local workers. Each day, the workers “break” the salt crystals that have formed at the top of each pool, and eventually they collect the crystals from the bottom of the lake. They then wash them and grind them into smaller crystals for consumption. Katwe exports about 70% of the salt produced to other countries in East Africa.
After Katwe, we continued on to the bush lodge. For the first night, I had booked a standard tent, being the budget-minded traveling law student that I am. For the second night, they did not have any available tents, so I was “forced” to upgrade to a banda…but I wasn’t complaining!
We had a 4-course dinner under the stars at the dining area of the camp overlooking the Kazinga Channel, which connects Lake George to Lake Edward. I heard hippos and warthogs outside my tent as I fell asleep that first night…I was so exhausted I didn’t wake up once!
I woke up at 5:30am, had breakfast at the dining area at 6am, and was on the truck with Noor for our game drive by 6:30am. The sunrise over the savannah was so beautiful as we made our way toward the areas where our guide knew we could spot the Big 5 (except rhinos, which sadly aren’t in this park).
I spotted everything I wanted to see…
This bush buck…they are known to be loners and only are spotted with other bush buck when mating…
This gorgeous leopard…it was amazing to see her so close…
…and my male lion. But…I will never look at lions the same way now. Our lion had just finished hunting this buffalo, and was panting heavily with his eyes halfway closed. However, the way he chose to start eating his buffalo left a LOT of questions in all of our minds as we looked down at him from the safari truck. WHY did he eat the buffalo THAT WAY? It was truly so gross. (Warning: if you’re about to eat anything, you may want to skip this picture). I have to say…this ruined The Lion King a little bit for me.
After our game drive, we continued our journey with a 2 hour drive around the famous crater lakes. These lakes, like Lake Katwe, were formed by volcanic activity several thousand years ago. We didn’t see any game here, but the views were breathtaking still.
The lakes reminded me so much of what I saw in Bolivia last summer, which makes me wonder if the volcanic activity occurred when South America and Africa were still joined as one continent.
As we drove around the lakes deep in the bush, our truck was swarmed by infamous tsetse flies! These are known for carrying the dreaded African Sleeping Sickness, but according to Noor this disease no longer exists. (“If it did, I’d be dead by now because I’ve been bitten so many times,” he said.) I was bitten twice (it felt like a small bee sting), so hopefully he’s right!
After the crater lakes drive, we had all gotten our appetite back a bit post-lion encounter, so we stopped for lunch at the restaurant in the park. I ate my vegetables and rice while looking out over the buffaloes and elephants drinking their water in the Kazinga Channel.
In the later afternoon, we took a 2 hour boat cruise along the Kazinga Channel and into the mouth of Lake Edward, which runs along the DRC border. Our boat spotted a crocodile, elephants, buffalo, impala, water buck, and what was probably close to 100 hippos (not exaggerating!) Our boat even hit a hippo, which I was not happy about. 😦 He seemed to be ok though.
My favorite part of the boat cruise was when we sailed into the mouth of Lake Edward and saw about 30 of the local village men leaving in their canoes for a night of fishing.
Because they live on national park land, these men must earn their livelihood solely from fishing and cannot farm the land. They fish at night and then barter their fish for food in the market during the day to feed their families. Each boat contained two fishermen, and they rowed out into the lake past swarms of hippos. They are so dedicated and brave, and I felt almost embarrassed watching them from my comfortable tourist position on the boat. Our guide informed us that 30% of the park fees we paid go to support schools and infrastructure in their village. Yet to see their dedication, work ethic, and bravery in person was truly humbling and inspiring.
After the boat ride, we made our way back to the bush camp, where I moved into my banda for the night!
Hippo, warthogs, hyenas, and even elephants and lions are regularly spotted in and around the camp. For this reason, I had to have a personal escort between the dining area and my banda after dark, as the bandas are further removed from the center of the camp than the tent area.
After dinner, I sat on my porch in complete darkness and silence, looking at the thousands of stars in the sky and listening to all the animals enjoying their nightlife around the Kazinga Channel just below. I felt safe, as an armed guard with a flashlight was stationed next to my banda for the night, and could assist me if I needed to leave for any reason (but again, I couldn’t help but feel humbled at the dedication and bravery of his profession, and I was so grateful for him!) I heard elephants and lions twice respectively, and listened to the constant sounds of the birds, warthogs, hippos, and insects as I slept like a baby for the second night in a row. (Or as Noor says, “I slept like a baby, without the crying!”)
The next morning began just as the previous one had—5:30am wake up, 6am breakfast, and 6:30am departure. This time, we loaded the truck and headed back toward Kampala, stopping at the Kalinzu rainforest along the way for a morning of chimpanzee trekking. We hiked through the dense forest for about half an hour before locating the chimpanzees stationed in the tall trees above. The forest was so thick and beautiful, and it reminded me so much of the beautiful time I spent hiking alone in Monteverde, Costa Rica back in January.
Once we located the chimps, we stopped and watched for about an hour. I camped out on the rainforest floor and just took it all in. While it was fun to watch the chimps, to me it was even more fun to listen to them talk to each other. Sadly, it was hard to get any good pictures of them, but I will post some videos of the sights (and especially the sounds!) to my Instagram soon!
After spending a few hours in the rainforest, we briefly visited the Ankole Tea Estate before hopping back on our safari truck and making the long journey back to Kampala. We stopped in Mbarara and Masaka again, as well as at a local roadside produce stand where I bought fresh mangoes for 1000 UGX (about 30 cents USD).
Once I finally made it home, I was so tired, so dirty, but oh so satisfied from the beauty and magic of the Western Rift Valley. While I was fortunate to take in all of this beauty on holiday, I am moved to recognize the economic challenges that so many local people there face. I am so grateful for their hospitality—the number of times children and adults alike waved at our safari truck is innumerable. I was especially humbled to stay in such a luxurious place knowing that the villages around me had none of this. I’ve been having a lot of thoughts lately about economic opportunity and disparity in Africa, which I’ll write about soon. But I’m forever changed in a positive way by how the people welcomed me and our group into their home for a few very special days.
Hello, hello! Long time, no talk. I am a bit behind on my blogging. Part of the reason is because I have been so busy here in Kampala, with both work and with personal travels. But I have to admit the main reason is that I don’t feel like I am “traveling” these days; I feel like I am just living my life here in Uganda.
The last couple of weeks have been full of highs and lows. In an effort to be honest and real, I have to write about both at the risk of sounding like I am complaining. I will try to alternate between the positives and negatives as I catch you, my readers, up on the Kampala life.
Pro: My birthday was fabulous!!
I turned 28 years old since I last posted! Thanks to my amazing co-workers and new ex-pat and local friends from here in Kampala, I celebrated my birthday with a surprise party/Ugandan feast during the day and with a dinner at my favorite Kampala restaurant, Cafeserrie, at night. My co-workers also showered me in gifts…I was truly humbled! ❤ This birthday was one of my best yet—it reminded me so much of last year, when I trekked Vinicunca Mountain in Peru and the local villagers threw me a mini-surprise party. It is going to be so hard to beat #27 and #28!
Con: “Africa time”
Both locals and ex-pats alike use this term to describe the perpetual lateness of literally everyone and everything here. For example, when messaging our office last week about the start time of a meeting, the head of my organization who is a native Ugandan said “2pm, No Africa time please!” While I can be guilty of being late myself from time to time back in the US, nothing in the US comes close to being on par with “Africa time.” Basically, it means double however long something is supposed to last, or add an hour or so on to any time at which something is supposed to start.
This week in particular, I’ve had some bad experiences with Africa time. I think the worst experience was when the bus that was supposed to take our team to Masaka for a training led by the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights arrived to pick us up 5 hours late. That’s right, 5 hours….that means we arrived in Masaka at midnight, because of course the 2 hour journey took 5 hours in “Africa time.” We then went to a local restaurant to eat, as no one had eaten dinner. I was so exhausted and nauseated from the trip I could barely eat anything (and also, I think I’ve had my fill of Ugandan food, as described in the next con).
One thing I love about Africa time is it means more leisure and less stress and worry. It’s been so nice to slow down from my usual NYC pace and live life at a pace that allows me to enjoy each day and live in the moment. However, this week has really made me miss the efficiency of the good ole US of A. I guess one positive is I now have an accurate way to describe the NYC subway system…it’s just running on Africa time!
Pro: Jinja, the Source of the Nile
Last weekend in Jinja was amazing! Located about three hours (Africa time) from Kampala, Jinja is home of the source of the Nile River, which flows north through Uganda through South Sudan to Egypt and the Mediterranean. Jinja town was adorable, and full of so many cute art shops. I bought so much here!! (Including lots of jewelry for myself and friends and family, and 2 sets of coasters for my apartment, haha…adulting hard!!) Saturday, I kayaked in the still waters while Carissa rented a stand-up paddle board.
That evening, we did a “dinner cruise” (which was actually more like a booze cruise) down the Nile at sunset. There were about 20 military members from the US, France, and the UK on the cruise from our campsite, so you can imagine this got to be pretty entertaining. Carissa and I camped in our tent along the banks of the Nile that night…it rained hard but our tent kept out all the water!
The next day, we went on an all-day rafting trip. This was my first time ever whitewater rafting, and it was a blast!! The rapids were grade 5, which is the most difficult level there is. Our guide, Koa, instructed us expertly as we navigated each rapid. We flipped over twice!!
Between each rapid, there was a nice long stretch of still water where we could relax and swim. I even got pulled out of the boat twice…the military guys would row up next to our boat and use their paddles to pull me in! Then Koa would have to pull me back into the boat. It was pretty hilarious.
I started out really loving the food here, but after 1 month of it, I think I am done. One problem is the portions at lunch are so huge, and I get “in trouble” if I don’t eat “enough”! I have even talked to our cooks twice about giving me smaller portions each day, but they continue to pile it on. Also, matoke is literally served at every meal. I have had enough matoke to last me the rest of my life.
The good news is I have found a pizza place here that I like, as it’s my #1 food back in NYC, as well as a place that sells hummus, so hopefully I can survive the next 1.5 months. There’s also a Pizza Hut if I get desperate and homesick enough! And, there is always Cafeserrie, where I go at least once a week now, which has delicious salads, pastas, and pizzas.
This week, I am going to have to start being a bit more firm about my lunch at work. As good as it is and as generous as they are, I do not want to be force-fed! I also still want to fit in my clothes when I go back to NYC, lol…
Pro: Sunshine and summertime
I have found my happy place here in Kampala—Kabira Country Club. A day pass costs 40,000 shillings (about $11) and it allows me to use the gym and the beautiful pool for the whole day! They also offer massages and have a salon on the premises, and their kitchen serves amazing food right to my chair by the pool!
The pro is I love and admire my dedicated and professional team, and the work we are doing together to promote media freedom is extremely important. However, it’s been a tough week. I wrote an article in the Daily Monitor about a situation involving a radio station here. The Ugandan authorities then called me out personally in a reply published in New Vision that also denied several facts I had included in my write-up that had been vetted by my team. I know my team faces this type of opposition on a regular basis, but it was a first for me. It was a reminder that this work is not easy.
In addition, last week, I travelled to Masaka (the journey is described above) to participate in a UN human rights field training for journalists. Our UN officer did a fantastic job giving an overview of the background, development, and mechanisms of human rights law for the participants, as well as advising on practical ways to ensure truth in reporting when it comes to human rights violations.
However, a lively and contentious discussion arose when our UN officer stated that LGBT persons are entitled to the universal human rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I was very taken aback by the refusal of many members of the group to acknowledge that LGBT people are entitled to the same human rights that heterosexual people are entitled to, including the right to life, liberty and security of person regardless of sex or status as clearly laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Whether or not a person agrees that same-sex marriage is a right, I was shocked that it was even a question that gay people should not enjoy the same universally recognized freedoms as everyone else simply because they are gay.
I had read about the obstacles that members of the LGBT community face here in Uganda, as this is the country that in 2013 tried to pass a law that would sentence gay people to the death penalty. The law was amended to give only a life sentence in prison (“only” is used ironically here) but was later overturned on a technicality. LGBT people still face a prison sentence in Uganda.
It shouldn’t matter whether or not you agree with the LGBT “lifestyle” for religious reasons–no one should die or be in danger for being gay.
The prejudice and misconceptions about the LGBT community became very apparent to me during this training as the discussion unfolded, and I shared my opposing views with the group. I will be perfectly honest—it was quite scary to do this in this setting, but I could not look my gay friends back in the US (and here for that matter) in the eye if I didn’t stand up for them when it mattered. I will be writing more about this at a later date.
Pro: Dinner parties!
Tonight, Jill and I are hosting our new third roommate, our Airbnb hosts, and our local friend Nat and Jem for a dinner in our apartment! Therefore, it’s time to wrap up this post, as I’ve got to get to hosting 🙂 Until next time!
As much as I love Kampala, it didn’t take long before I was ready to get outside the city and get my nature connection going. In just two nights of camping at Lake Mburo last weekend, I managed to accidentally get lost in the bush for an hour with 3 children from a local village, pass out from dehydration, and have the best time with a group of new friends from Kampala—it was truly a “wild” time!
My special connection to camping in Africa started a year and a half ago when I took a spur-of-the-moment trip to Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa during Christmas 2015. I had just gotten out of a long-term relationship, and was starting to feel like I didn’t want to work in finance forever either after 3 years. So, instead of going home to Mississippi/Alabama for the holidays as usual, I decided to go on a mind-clearing, soul-searching trip by myself to…Africa!! Granted, I had never camped before in my life, and had never been anywhere besides Europe and Mexico at this point, but I figured, why not!?
This trip truly changed my life, and I credit my 10 days in the wild with giving me the perspective I needed to set some decisions in motion and fully live out this “quarter-life crisis” thing. I also made some amazing friends who continue to be very dear to me. As cheesy as it sounds, I feel like I found part of myself sleeping under the stars and amongst the wildlife in southern Africa that Christmas.
So, when I had the opportunity to travel to Lake Mburo in western Uganda and camp for three days last weekend with some new friends I had made over the last few weeks, my unequivocal answer was yes! The Mihingo Lodge was hosting its annual marathon/half-marathon/10k/5k/mountain bike race to raise funds for conservation, so my new American friend Carissa and I immediately started looking up tent and sleeping bag rentals and transportation to the park. We were soon joined in the planning by our new British friends Nick and Shaun, as well as Carissa’s school friend Charles (whom I had also met in the airport the night I arrived!).
After almost getting ripped off by a guy from Facebook who wanted to charge us a 30 USD “delivery fee” for renting his camping equipment, Carissa and I decided just to buy our own equipment from the local store Game (it’s a Ugandan chain store owned by Wal-Mart, and it sells just about everything). Friday was Hero’s Day in Uganda, and as all offices were closed, we were able to set off that morning with a ride we had found (also on Facebook…there’s a “Kampala Ex Pats” page). I rode to our meeting point loaded down on the boda with my tent, 2 sleeping bags, and backpack…it was quite the sight.
We arrived at Lake Mburo that afternoon after crossing the Equator (!), and Carissa and I pitched our tent near our friends.
The delicious camp meals were served from a “kitchen” tent, and we all enjoyed some pasta and drinks before turning in. The bathroom situation was pretty much non-existent—the toilets were holes it the ground surrounded on 3 sides by a screen, and the “showers” were buckets hanging from trees that never seemed to have water. However, this was all part of the fun!! There is freedom in being dirty!
The next morning, it was time to race. Even though I used to run all the time and finished a marathon just before my last Africa trip, I barely do anymore, so I signed up for the 5k with Shaun, Charles, and tons of children from local villages (lol). The rest of our camping group decided to do the 10k with the rest of the adults, so I was at least happy to have some fellow underachievers in Shaun and Charles. 🙂
At around 8am, we set off. Shaun and Charles quickly left me in the dust (lol), but I had a new running buddy—this little kid from a local village. He didn’t speak English (they speak luyankole in this part of western Uganda) so he couldn’t tell me his name, so I called him “Little Dude.” After running along beside me for the first half-mile, Little Dude dropped back to within 5-10 feet of me for the rest of the race.
I should have known something was up when it was just me and Little Dude (LD) on the trail. In one of my worst blonde moments ever to date, I thought the blue arrows were for the 5k and the green arrows were for the half-marathon. In reality, it was reversed. As I followed the blue arrows, Little Dude followed me, and before too long it was just me, him, some zebras, and the occasional mountain biker.
This didn’t feel right. “Are we going the right way?” I asked LD. He just grinned at me blankly. After 40 minutes, I knew we should have finished the 5k, and we were officially lost. Ironically, LD and I came across two more local children who didn’t speak English and had also gotten lost on the trail. They too started walking along with me, pointing at the zebras as we passed. (I had given up running at this point!)
“You’ve got an entourage, don’t you?!” said an older British man, as he whizzed past me and my 3 new friends on his mountain bike.
“Haha, I guess so. Actually, we’re lost. Can you tell me how to get back to the campsite?” I asked.
“Sorry, don’t know!” he said, as he left us in the dust.
“What a jerk!” I thought. We were at the 1-hour mark, and while I wasn’t worried yet, I knew the kids would need water soon. LD was lagging behind, so I offered him a piggyback ride.
Fortunately, a nice British lady soon passed us on her mountain bike, offered us water and told us the general direction back to camp. We were about 8 kms away at this point! “I’ll send help for you guys from up ahead,” she said as she continued along her trail ride. As we started walking back toward the general direction of camp, a lodge worker soon approached us in a Land Rover…we were rescued!! We shared some good laughs about it in the truck on the way back to camp.
LD and I ended up crossing the finish line at about 1 hour and 30 minutes…my worst 5k time ever!
After relaxing for a bit back at the camp, Shaun, Charles, my new British friend Becky, and I decided to ride around and see more of the park in Becky’s vehicle. After loading up and getting about 10 yards down the dirt road, we had a flat. Shaun and I watched as Charles and Becky expertly started putting the spare on. All of the sudden, my head started spinning and my vision blurred.
“I’ve never felt like this before,” I said, as I leaned against Shaun’s shoulder. While this sounds quite romantic, that’s the last thing it was. The next thing I knew, I was sitting on the ground with Becky holding my hand, Shaun holding a cold bottle of water against my neck, and Charles looking into my eyes (he’s a trained paramedic!) I felt like I was waking up from a nap, but apparently I had fainted. I have never passed out before in my life, and it was a weird sensation!! I drank lots of water and some electrolyte tablets for the rest of the day, and felt completely fine afterward. Moral of the story—don’t forget to drink water after getting lost in the African bush for an hour!
After these near-death experiences, the rest of the weekend was drama-free (thank goodness). We took a boat safari around Lake Mburo later that afternoon, and spotted several hippo, birds, eagles, and warthogs!
Back at the camp, we enjoyed a second beautiful sunset before pulling out our flashlights and playing games before going to sleep.
The next morning, we had one last campsite meal, and I enjoyed the “bush coffee” they brew in a huge pot over the campfire while taking down our tent and packing up. Becky was kind enough to give Carissa and me a ride back to the big city of Kampala (“the big K” as I’ve started to call it), as our previous ride had already left a day early.
You’d think after all the craziness, I’d give up camping for a while…but I am actually going again this coming weekend in Jinja! All I need to do is pay more attention to where I am going, and drink more water. ❤
On Tuesday, I got to go on my first road trip across Uganda—north to the town of Lira. It was a rollercoaster 36 hours, in more ways than one.
My reason for travel was professional. My organization was representing a journalist in the town of Lira—we will call him “J”—who had been arrested one fateful evening just before the presidential election last year during the airing of his radio political talk show, along with four other politicians. J and his co-defendants had been kept on trial for 16 straight months without the state producing a single witness for the “crime” of alleged defacement of political posters. The irony is that J could not have been involved with the defacement as he was on the air during the time the act occurred. Nevertheless, he was relentlessly prosecuted as part of an effort to chill political dissent and freedom of expression. Our client made 12 consecutive appearances before the court over this period, and each time the court would adjourn and require his presence at the next hearing, presumably until the state could produce witnesses.
Our client’s rights were being violated under both Ugandan law (Article 28(1) of the Constitution) and international customary law (the right to a fair and speedy trial). So, my organization sent my colleague K, an attorney on staff who focuses on litigation, and me north to Lira to argue for the dismissal of the charges.
K and I set off on our journey from the central bus station of Kampala. We had two options for bus travel—the GaaGaa Coach and the Baby Coach. Both were public buses without air conditioner that cost 20,000 shillings one way (about $5), yet the GaaGaa coach was known to be slightly more comfortable and organized. Of course, we missed the GaaGaa coach by 5 minutes, so we booked our tickets on the infamous Baby Coach.
After sitting on the bus for about 1.5 hours as they changed tires and continued to load more customers in, we started down the road out of Kampala north toward Lira. K and I were pretty cramped on the Baby Coach, as the tiny “baby-sized” seats were covered in plastic and super sticky. But once the bus started rolling, the fresh air made the circumstances more manageable. In accordance with what I am coming to realize of “Africa time,” the 4 hour drive took about 7 hours.
One thing we were not lacking on this road trip was snacks! My favorite part of the trips to and from Lira was when the bus would pull over and local vendors would swarm up to our windows, selling their goods. Sometimes, if they spotted me, I would hear “Muzungu! Muzungu!” from down below. (Muzungu is Luganda for white person haha). At almost every stop, I tried to buy something new…I enjoyed the gonja (roasted banana-like fruit), g-nuts, and cassava (a roasted root that tastes like mashed potato). I didn’t try the meat on a stick (still vegetarian these days!), roasted corn, jackfruit (because I don’t like it), or Rolex (chapatti—a Ugandan bread—with egg wrapped inside), but they were selling all of these things as well. They also sold live chickens to any interested buyers!
We also passed over the Nile and saw several baboons about halfway along the journey, and spotted many obusisira, or traditional hut-style houses along the way.
Once we finally arrived in Lira, our mission came into sharper focus. We first met with J and gave him our assessment of the facts and the applicable law. “I pray to God this is over with tomorrow and I can be a free man again,” he explained. It was clear the case had taken a toll on J physically and emotionally, as he seemed very tired and worn down.
Given the political nature of our case, our client warned us that he thought we were being “tracked” (this was later confirmed from sources both in Lira and Kampala), and he advised a certain secure hotel for K and me to spend the night. He led us to a small gated hotel just off a dirt road on the edge of town. While this was supposed to be the “safe” hotel, I instantly felt sketched out by this place. Trusting my feminine instincts, I discreetly asked K if we could keep looking, and he agreed.
We then asked if we could stay at the M Hotel, which looked much newer, cleaner, and more secure, but this immediately alarmed our clients. “This place is not safe and there have been many kidnappings here,” they stated. However, after visiting, I for some reason felt way safer in this place than the last place—it was much more well-lit and the staff seemed trustworthy. After finding his cousin was on security detail that night, our client finally acquiesced to allowing us to spend the night here, and allowed me to settle into my room only after thoroughly checking it for wiretaps and working locks. Even though my room “checked out,” I slept with the chair under the doorknob just in case as I was thoroughly freaked out. And it takes a lot to freak me out! Also, it made me feel better knowing K was just 2 doors down. I was so relieved to see we both survived the night to attend the trial the next day!
The next morning, we arrived at the courthouse and met our client J, his brother, and his four co-defendants. Even though we were charged with defending J, K agreed to represent the other four at the request of the magistrate, as he preferred to keep the matters grouped together. Because K is a legal champ, he agreed. (Some judges are called “magistrate” here). We then proceeded to wait outside for 2.5 hours with all other defendants before we were called by the attendant into the chambers.
We spent the time chatting about the case and life in general, and it passed surprisingly fast. I was particularly taken aback by the arrival of the 30 or so male inmates from the jail down the road. They arrived on foot, escorted by prison guards and handcuffed to one another. They then knelt on their knees before the 20 ft x 20 ft cinderblock “holding cell” for about 30 minutes, before they were allowed in.
Once inside the cell, the sound of voices drifted beyond the cinderblocks, harmonizing together to form a song in a language I couldn’t understand, but understood all the same.
“They sing to give themselves hope,” K explained to me.
Finally, it was our time to go before the magistrate. As we entered the chambers, the magistrate immediately looked to me. There is no doubt I stood out, as I was the only muzungu around and also one of very few women present on the premises.
“Are you with CNN or BBC?” he asked me. I couldn’t tell if he was kidding or serious. I later found out he was serious.
“Neither, your honor,” I replied. “I am a law student at New York University, and am an intern with K this summer.”
“I see,” he replied. “You will see… we apply the law here in Uganda.”
“Yes, your honor,” I replied. But secretly, I wasn’t sure yet.
K opened with a clear and concise argument—this case had dragged on for 16 months, and our clients’ rights to a fair and speedy trial had been violated. This right is not only given in the Ugandan constitution and in international law, but is a bedrock of democracy. K argued for dismissal of the charges under the Magistrates Court Act Cap 16, Section 119(1) (want of prosecution). After a short response from the prosecution, the magistrate issued his ruling in favor of the defendants. Tears sprang into my eyes as I looked over at J and saw his eyes filling with tears as well. He is now free of the burden of being prosecuted for no reason, and can return to his family in a nearby village to rest and recover from the trauma.
After some congratulatory high-fives and hugs, K and I jumped on some boda bodas to pick up our bags from the hotel, and then to board the bus back to Kampala. We were lucky to book the GaaGaa coach this time around! We had lunch with one defendant at the Divine Mercy café—matoke, dried fish, and rice—before boarding the bus for the 4 hour (lol…7 hour) journey back to Kampala.
As the bus passed back through the beautiful rural countryside, I felt truly grateful that justice had been delivered for J and the four other men that day. However, I couldn’t help dwelling on the maxim “justice delayed is justice denied” and feeling like a part of J will never be healed after being taken, beaten, imprisoned, and relentlessly prosecuted for expressing his political beliefs and performing his job as a journalist. I think the irony is that the more a government tries to suppress the freedom of expression, the louder those voices will rise from behind whatever temporary walls are places around them—much like the prisoners in the holding cell at the Lira court, singing their songs of pain and hope, reality and dreams of a better world.
Greetings from Kampala! I’ve only been here a week, but it’s starting to feel like home in a lot of ways.
Yes, I am in Uganda, and yes I am on an adventure, but this summer already feels quite different because I am living and working in one place instead of moving around constantly like a nomad with ADHD. Don’t get me wrong—I am definitely going on some weekend excursions (stay tuned!) but I am actually enjoying the feeling of settling in halfway across the world. Below, I’ve listed a few of my favorite things about Kampala so far…some which I expected, and others which have taken me by surprise.
Every day, I ride a boda boda to and from work. (Mom, please don’t freak out!) Rain or shine. It’s the best feeling to be weaving through traffic with the wind in my hair. Beats the NYC subway (for now at least!) Seeing as my office is off a dirt road (yes, it’s in Kampala city limits), it can get a little muddy. It’s like mud-riding. As my boss D put it, “You Americans play in mud for fun, but we don’t have a choice here.” Makes you think, right?
I’ve also had some pretty interesting conversations with my boda drivers. A few people have recommended I get one driver and stick with him for the whole summer, but I’m just not ready for that level of commitment. Lol.
Matoke and other foods
Matoke is similar to mashed potatoes but made from a banana-like plant that grows on trees. It is one of the main food staples of Uganda! I love it…which is a good thing because it is served everyday for lunch in my office.
Some other Ugandan foods I like? Posho (like mashed potatoes that taste like grits because it’s made out of corn meal), nakati (a bitter and salty dark green), and ground nut stew (literally mashed up nuts made into stew).
Also, the garden behind our office has an avocado tree, so we get to eat fresh avocadoes every day for lunch!
My office is pretty cool for the fact that we have 2 cooks on staff who prepare a home-cooked meal everyday for lunch, using fresh ingredients from the garden, and serve us at our desk!
As much as I am loving Ugandan food everyday for lunch, I have a confession…we literally are served so much food, I cannot come close to finishing it everyday. I then get in trouble with D, the head of our legal department, who thinks I can do a better job of cleaning my plate! I guess she doesn’t realize if I did that, I would fall asleep at my desk from a food coma. All things considered, this is not a bad problem to have, and I am really enjoying the food!
Speaking of food, my roommate and I ordered pizza my first night in town. Yes, you can order pizza in Uganda. It was delivered on the back of a boda boda….
My neighborhood bodega
Like any good New Yorker, I appreciate a good 24/7 neighborhood bodega. Imagine my surprise when I found one just around the corner from my house! It’s not open 24/7, but it’s open most nights until 11pm, and they sell potato chips, wine, and other important items. It kind of looks like a jail, and they hand you your items through the iron bars…you don’t even go inside. I love this place!
So many people here have asked me if I’m British…having grown up in (very) rural Alabama, I am enjoying being mistaken for a British person so much! I have no idea why I’ve been asked this so many times, but I guess it means the Southern accent is nowhere to be found anymore. RIP 😦
…and when they find out I’m American, they ask about Trump. You can imagine how this goes…
I love my apartment here! I found it over Airbnb, and it’s very comfortable and already feels like home for the summer. The front yard is a little crazy…there’s a huge gate and a small house with a 24/7 security guard. It took a while to get used to this, but I’d say I am now. My favorite part of the house is the back patio ❤
I will have a lot more to say about this as the summer goes on, but for now, I am working at a human rights organization here in Kampala focused on defending the freedom of expression, the free press, and journalists’ rights. I felt so welcomed by the team from day #1! Everyone in my office is a native Ugandan, except me of course haha.
I am working with the legal department, which consists of D, K, and I. D is a mom of 4 with a law degree, and she is going back for a master’s degree this fall. I have mad respect for this lady! She is also hilarious, even when she is getting on to me for not finishing my food at lunch. My desk is next to hers, which is so nice because we have so much to talk about over the course of the day. K is another attorney on staff, and I got to go to court with him on Wednesday (more about this in a later post). K has been great at explaining the ropes to me, and I get to travel with him to northern Uganda next week for a trial! I is probably my best friend at work so far…he is exactly 2 weeks older than me and just finished his first year of law school, like me. He knows so much about American politics…more than a lot of Americans I know!! We’ve had some interesting discussions.
The 4 of us in the Legal Department share an office with four cubicles, and the days go by so quickly as we have a lot of work to do and stories to share. One thing I’ve enjoyed in particularly is comparing cases from law school with the team. Uganda has a common law system based on British law, just like the USA, seeing as both countries are former colonies of Great Britain (geez England, you thought you owned everything there for a while!) As a result, Ugandan law schools study many of the same cases we study in US law school that date back…I was particularly amused to learn we both studied the Raffles case (yes, I was laughing about the Peerless with my Ugandan officemates today! Nerdiness knows no nationality!) I’ve also enjoyed discussing the similarities and differences in Ugandan and American civil procedure and the structure of the court systems with the team…literally the only time I’ve ever enjoyed talking about Civ Pro lol.
The organization is much bigger than the legal department, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know all of my many other colleagues who work on other aspects of human rights work. There is too much to share about the work I am doing and the things I am learning in this post, and I want to write about these things thoughtfully in a future post. Just know it’s really been a great experience so far!
#nonewfriends? Nah…I’ve made so many great, new friends here in Kampala! It all starts with my roommate J from Canada…we both randomly found this apartment on our own, but it was like fate. J has been looking out for me since day 0. Before my arrival, she even stocked up on water and groceries for me, and let me in the apartment at 4:30am when I arrived!
J also introduced me to a ton of other expats, and it was so fun to explore the Kampala night life with all of them last weekend. J also introduced me to N and J– a Canadian couple who permanently lives in Uganda now. They are both artists and some of the kindest and most interesting people…they made dinner for me and J and even taught us how to light a Ugandan stove! (It looks more dangerous than it is, I think…maybe J and I will be brave enough to try it on our own soon?! Until then I’m gonna keep eating popcorn for dinner…) I also made some friends on my flight over (who knew you could meet such interesting people at a Uganda airport at 3am?!) Not surprisingly, I’ve only met a few other Americans, but a ton of other Canadians, Brits, and Egyptians! 🙂
Right?! I am surprised too. I freaking love the wifi here…it’s actually better than what I have in NYC. I am using Vodaphone, and it’s been so great so far. I carry this little box with me everywhere I go, meaning I have wifi wherever I am. Considering I wasn’t sure if I’d have wifi at all (lol), this is fantastic!
10. The weather
It’s not nearly as hot here as I imagined it would be, and it even gets a little chilly at night. There’s also a nice rain about every other day. I can’t believe I am living on the Equator and the weather is so pleasant!
This is just a preview of my first week in my new home! I know I will have so much more to share as the weeks pass…for now, Osiibye otya nno! (Good evening in Lugandan).
PS- For those who don’t know, Chelsea Handler came up with “Uganda Be Kidding Me.” I love her. Credit where credit is due…
Spending the day exploring Cairo was the perfect beginning to my summer abroad in Uganda. When shopping for flights back in March, I was so excited to see the cheapest flight option from NYC would also give me a 10 hour layover in Cairo before I boarded a connection to Entebbe. Just enough time to explore the pyramids! I soon learned Cairo has so much more to offer…
I have to admit I was a bit nervous about exploring Cairo on my own, based on what I had seen and heard in the media about being a solo female in the city. Fortunately, my friend Richard from the UK whom I met last summer in Berlin, had the perfect solution for me. A few years back, he had explored Cairo with a fantastic guide named Hossam, and he connected me with Hossam over Facebook and WhatsApp. I arrived in Egypt with my (come to find out, unfounded) anxiety at bay and ready to explore! (TLDR summary): I felt very safe my entire time in Cairo, despite what you may see and hear in the media. I would encourage anyone I know to travel to Egypt!
Hossam and his driver met me at the airport once I arrived at 11am Cairo time. I had the whole row to myself on the 10.5 hour flight from NYC, so I was able to get some good sleep while catching up on some recent movies—Hidden Figures (I totally cried!) and Masterminds (I cried from laughing so much!) After purchasing my visa (25 USD) and making my way through security, I found Hossam just past the arrivals section, and we loaded up and began the 1.5 hour drive to Giza.
First impressions of Egypt? The traffic is insane! Even more insane than NYC x1000. Most main roads do not even have painted lanes, and it doesn’t make a difference on the ones that do as most drivers straddle the lines with their cars as they drive. Even though Cairo traffic was a true free-for-all, there were surprisingly no accidents, as all the drivers are super vigilant even as they drive crazily.
Pyramids on Pyramids
As we made our way toward Giza, Hossam drew diagrams for me as he explained the significance of the pyramids and ancient Egyptian history. Giza is located on the west bank of the Nile, while the main city of Cairo is on the east bank. This is for a reason—the ancient Egyptians believed that the side of the Nile where you lived represented your current life, while the opposite bank represented the afterlife. Therefore, the pharaohs constructed their burial sites on the west side to represent the “crossing over” that occurred after death.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Great Pyramid in person—it was breathtaking. According to Hossam, the pyramids change each time you view them, and are never the same twice. Do they have a mystical power? I’ll leave that for you, the reader, to decide.
During the course of the visit, we walked around and took in the sites at various points. I paid 200 EGP (~11 USD) extra to climb to the burial room inside the Great Pyramid, and it was worth it. The climb is more like a 37 meter inclined crawl, and it was hot and cramped at times. It reminded me of the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam. Once I reached the top, I found myself alone in the burial room where the body of the pharaoh Khufu was once sealed…super eerie!
After leaving Khufu’s Great Pyramid, we made our way toward the bank of the Nile, stopping along the way to visit the Queens’ pyramids and the burial temple of Khufu. Hossam was able to take me into a secret locked portion of the temple!
We then drove around to take in the view of the complex from the other side of the pyramids away from the Nile bank. The Great Pyramid is accompanied by the pyramids of Khafre (Khufu’s son) and Menkaure. Out of respect, Khafre built his pyramid to be 3 meters shorter than his father’s pyramid. But poor Menkaure—his pyramid is so tiny compared to the other two! Hossam told me this was likely due to a poor economy during the time of its construction—when there was more abundance, the pyramids were bigger, and vice versa.
Our last stop in the temple complex was a visit to the valley temple of Khufu and the Sphinx (my favorite!). Until 100 years ago, the Nile flowed just beneath the Sphinx and the valley temples. However, the river has since changed course. The purpose of the valley temples was to receive the bodies of the dead pharaohs from the “other side” in preparation for the afterlife. Each pyramid has a valley temple and a causeway leading to the burial temple, which is connected to the pyramid.
The Sphinx, a mythical creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion, was built to guard the pyramid complex by the pharaoh Khafre along the banks of the Nile. Like seeing the Great Pyramid, seeing the Sphinx in person for the first time was truly breathtaking…it’s like he popped out of nowhere as I scanned my eyes across the horizon, and I was definitely caught off guard!
A Heart Like a Feather
After leaving the pyramids, Hossam took me to a papyrus art gallery. I knew papyrus was used as paper, but I had no idea the spiritual significance of the plant to ancient Egyptians. The papyrus and the lotus flowers are the two sacred plants—the lotus flower represents love, and the woman gives a lotus to the man she wants to marry (yes, the women proposed to men in ancient Egypt! Holla at that feminism!) If he accepted the lotus, they were engaged. If not, then she could move on! The papyrus was also sacred because of its form (its shape represents the sun god Ra, as the head of the stalk looks like the sun’s rays shooting out), and because of its function (used to make boats and as paper).
As a law student, the mythology of the weighing of the heart struck me in particular, and is my favorite story I am taking away from my time here. After a person dies, he goes before Osiris, the judge of the afterlife. The heart of the deceased is placed on a pair of scales and weighed against a feather, held by Maat, the goddess of justice. If the feather outweighs the heart, he had a light heart, meaning he spent his life peacefully doing good for others. However, if the heart outweighs the feather, he had a heavy heart, meaning he had lived his life in anger and not doing right by other people. I love this story and all it represents—what a great reminder to keep a light heart every day!
Khan el-Khalili, the Old Islamic Market
We finished out our busy day with a visit to the souk (marketplace) in the Islamic district of Cairo called Khan el-Khalili. The market was full of both modern and traditional vendors, and it seemed every other building was a mosque featuring the most beautiful architecture.
I learned that all mosques have domed shapes because of the acoustic requirements before the age of electricity and loudspeakers—the domes would amplify the call to prayer five times daily. Today, the calls to prayer are simply played over loudspeakers, but the domed shape has remained a part of Islamic tradition and culture.
Another interesting architectural find? These window screens, called mashrabiya. As women must be covered in public, and not viewed by anyone but her husband and family, these screens allow women to look from their windows and not be viewed from the street, thus maintaining their privacy and modesty.
Besides the beautiful architecture, my favorite part of the souk was our stop at El Feshawy, the oldest coffee shop in Khan el-Khalili. Here, we enjoyed Turkish coffee and shisha while people stopped at our table and tried to sell me trinkets, henna, and souvenirs every 5 seconds (a firm “no thank you” usually did the trick). After relaxing for a bit, we wound our way back through the market and through the gate, where our driver was waiting to take me back to the airport… 😦
Sadly, the very next day after my visit, a shooting attack by ISIS on a bus carrying Coptic Christians killed 29 people just outside of Cairo. I received several messages asking if I was ok—I am ok, and we should keep the victims and their families in our thoughts and prayers. This terrible tragedy is a reminder that nowhere in the world is safe, but I want to reemphasize that I never felt in danger during my time in Cairo. America is not the safest place either–it has been almost a year since a shooting attack in Florida killed 50 people. The truth is we all have to stay vigilant no matter where we are in the world.
At the end of the day, I was not ready to leave Cairo! It was such a beautiful city and I feel like I developed a deeper appreciation for Egyptian heritage and culture. I hope to go back and visit sometime in the future.
Hi, I’m Gracie, a 28 year old New Yorker, native Alabamian, law student, and lover of travel. I’m excited to share my journey with you.
I started this blog to encourage and inspire people to travel, no matter their age, background, or prior travel experience. I left the US for the first time just a few years ago, and recently I’ve had the opportunity to travel across 5 different continents–just me and and my trusty backpack! I hope the information and stories I share will help readers travel with confidence and purpose. I also look forward to using this blog to share my thoughts about current events within the US and around the world in an effort to promote dialogue and understanding across the political spectrum.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” – Sylvia Plath