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Uganda (I): Landing in Africa

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Today it’s been a year since I took that plane. Destination: Uganda, Africa. The memories I keep from that trip are still many and very fresh, but before I risk forgetting any of the details, I decided I would write about everything I experienced there.

It was a long journey. Almost 12 hours waiting at the airport in Amsterdam and 8 more till we landed in Rwanda, where a kids choir made our stopover more pleasant by singing some African songs before taking off to Entebbe, the final destination. I remember that one of the kids, who was sat next to me, was telling me about their tour in Europe where they did some gigs. Before leaving the plane, he wished me safe travels and hugged me. I didn’t expect that, but this gave me a hint of how caring and loving Ugandans are.

Do you know the typical banners people hold when they wait for other people to arrive at the airport? So yeah, my name was to be on one of these banners. And nope, it was not there. Norman Gates, Park Jae-sang, Silvio Berlusconi,… All possible names where there but no Jordi Vilagut. Instead, about two hundred taxi drivers climbing on each others shoulders and trying to offer me their services. At that point I considered the high death-ratio involved in all possible resolutions to that situation. I’d say it was just 5 minutes till Nathan waved his banner among the crowd, Jordi Vilagut, indeed, it was me, but those were the 5 longest minutes of my life.

I had been joking with my friends about what would happen if I arrive to Africa and no one’s waiting for me. It is exactly how it happened.

Nathan is the founder of ACTS International, a local NGO that that defends, rehabilitates and empowers victims of violence, marginalization and exploitation, such as the orphan kids that recent wars have left unprotected, men and women affected with the HIV virus and young and adult people that didn’t have access to education. Nathan is one of a few privileged individuals that, thanks to outstanding grades at school, earned a scholarship that took him to Europe. When he came back, he landed a job at university, where he teaches Criminology, and he started several social projects to help the ones that didn’t have his luck.

Nathan and his wife Lornah were the ones to pick me up on that day at the airport, and we started then our journey to Mbale, the city where they live, on eastern Uganda. The trip, I had checked on google, was about 300 km. Used to the European roads, I very mistakenly calculated it would take about three hours. It was night and the flight had been long, but I was still a bit fearful, in a new continent and in a car with two strangers that I’d just met, so I decided to stay a wake an give conversation. When we had been driving for around four hours, I fell asleep like a dead man.

I woke up when we were almost there. It was past midnight and we had been on the road for 6 hours. I felt bad that they had to come take me at the airport, but to be honest, I don’t know what would I’ve done if they weren’t there.

It was dark but I could already distinguish that they lived in a very humble house, it almost looked like it was still in construction. A concrete wall with no paint surrounded it. But in fact, on the following days I realized that it was one of the only houses in the neighborhood that had a fence protecting it.

They took me to what was going to be my room. It was better than expected. It had a bed, obviously covered by a giant mosquito-net and a cupboard with a few books and stuff. I didn’t pay much attention to be honest. I took the malaria profilaxis pill and went to sleep, tired as hell.

Next day when I woke up, I was already nervous about everything awaiting me. I came out of my room and found them all, sitting on the patio. Nathan, Lornah and their three wonderful kids: Jamimah, Promise and Junior. They were 5, 3 and 1 years old. Sitting there I also found Maria, a Russian volunteer that had been collaborating with the NGO for a while, and the maid of the house.

Promise and Jamimah playing on the patio.

I introduced myself and Promise offered me breakfast: a cup of black tea and a toast. It wasn’t a lot, but I didn’t expect a feast, I knew it was a lot coming from them.

On the first day I didn’t do much. Nathan took me to the city center, to look for some things I needed, and introduced me to other volunteers that were living in a guest house on the city. My project was based in a rural area, 50 km away from Mbale, and I would stay there during the week, at Nathan’s brother.

We determined that he would take me to Cheptui on the next day. The school where I was going to teach was there. I spent that afternoon playing with the kids, and it surprised me to see that the girls were collaborating a lot in the household tasks and at their early age were able to wash the clothes and help preparing the food very efficiently.

On the next morning we got bad news. A friend of the family, that had been on the hospital for a few days, passed away. A virus that the medics couldn’t treat well. Because of that Lornah had to go and Nathan stayed taking care of the little ones. So we postponed my trip one more day. What worried me the most, though, was how Africans refer to death so naturally. For them, it’s an everyday thing… not a big deal.

So I spent that day with Maria, that was volunteering at a school in Mbale. She had been a few months in Uganda and you could tell that she felt like home there. I still felt uneasy going out on the streets and seeing that every single person on the street had their eyes on us. They observed us and called us. It wasn’t new to Maria. — Maria, and how do you make it to the city, how do you go there? — I asked her, given that we lived in a suburb, away from the center. — I take the boda-boda! — She answered cheerfully. — Boda?Boda? — I asked, confused.— Yes! These motorbikes that take you to the city for just fifty cents! Sometimes you can even share them! — She was telling me excited. — Share them? 3 people on a bike? — Of course! Sometimes even four! You have to be carefull, moreover they don’t use a helmet. — Aren’t there accidents? — Yeah… many. It’s sad. Otherwise you can always use the taxis, but sometimes they take very long to go. They are also shared taxis and they wait till the taxi is full. — At that point I decided that I would reduce to the minimum my trips to the city, and that going by taxi wasn’t a bad idea.

The common means of transport in Uganda were shared taxis (25 people in a 7-seater van) or motorbikes with 4 people on it.

That night, talking with Nathan about the project, it got even worse. He was telling me the reason why many kids that attended Bulumera school didn’t have a family. Years ago, armed groups from Northern Uganda, tribes with radical beliefs, used to subdue other communities and murder any person that didn’t follow their directions. These tribes were against all kinds of technology, against everything belonging to the occidental world, and also believed that they were the only ones that could possess cattle. — Yes Jordi, they came and saw that my relative had cows. They killed my father. — Told me Nathan that day. He had also been an orphan kid.

Nathan told me, in a very natural way, how terrorists from Northern Uganda had murder his father.

Out of the sadness that this caused on me, it obviously also made me think about the danger I would be on if I ever stumbled upon one of these barbarians. — These groups are currently unarmed, Jordi. — Nathan tried to calm me down. — If you don’t visit the areas where they live, you’re out of risk. And they never come down here anymore. They live 200km away.

So we left to Cheptui on Tuesday. The landscapes that we saw on the way there were unbelievable. Huge grasslands, prominent mountains and magnificent palm trees made that scenery unforgettable. The roads, though, were as bad as usual.

We got to Cheptui, that had nothing to do with Mbale. If the city already look like half in ruins, with unconnected and destroyed sidewalks, and the buildings that looked like they were about to collapse, the village constructions were even more rudimentary. The houses were made out of mud and sticks, with steel sheets as a roof.

Backyard of Steve’s house.

We arrived to Steve’s house, he was Nathan’s brother, and there I got some news that hit me like a new bucket of cold water on me. Steve came with a serious look and started speaking nervously to Nathan in the local language. It didn’t look good. They invited me to go inside and we sat around a table. Nathan translated to me in English what Steve had told him: Look Jordi, this week there are the local elections in Uganda. One of the members of our community is running as a candidate here in Cheptui, and things got a bit intense. Yesterday, people supporting the rival party came around shouting and throwing rocks. I think it’s better if you don’t stay here today. The results of the election will come out tonight and after that it will get quieter. We came back to Mbale and I stayed one more day at Nathan’s.

Just the week when I arrived to Uganda, there were local elections and things weren’t looking nice. I couldn’t sleep in Cheptui because of that.

It was difficult to close my eyes that night. I think that I’ve never been so scared in my adulthood. Meanwhile I was lying on my bed, in my head I could only see the million ways I could die in Uganda: strange viruses, reckless bikers, homicidal tribes and political hooligans.

I fell asleep eventually, seriously considering the option to take a flight to Barcelona ASAP. Luckily, I didn’t do it, because my perception about Uganda and the people living there changed 180 degrees on the following days. But I will explain that on my next post. To be continued.

The road from Mbale to Cheptui.