Uganda/1 – East Africa

Most of us think of East Africa with grand images of migrating wildebeest and zebra moving from the Maasai Mara in Kenya heading down the slopes of the Tanzanian highlands and onto the great grassy plains of the Serengeti. Politically East Africa has more than one configuration – and that is changing and has changed over the past few decades. Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda have always been part of the East African Union (EAU). Today the countries of South Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, and The Democratic of the Republic of Congo (DRC) are often included. There are discussions underway right now to determine what the EAU should be and someday will be.

For us nature people, and nature itself, the political boundaries don’t matter much; we want to see the forest, the savannah, the birds, mammals, and butterflies. And, specifically in Uganda, we want to see the mountains and the great apes. For birdwatchers it might be the Shoebill or Papyrus Gonolek or the endemic birds of the mountains along the Albertine Rift. Over the next few posts we will look at the primates, birds, and ecosystems of Uganda; but this first post will set the scene. Where is Uganda? Who lives there? What are the major geographical features? How many birds? How many Mammals? Any reptiles? And so on……

Uganda is on the equator. It should be hot – and it is at its lower elevations, but the mountains reach almost three miles upward and some have permanent snow. The great Rift Valley cracked this part of the planet and opened a long scar in the earths surface. The Red Sea, Israel, Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Mozambique all bear the mark of this fracture. There are a few things to note on this map: the lake is Lake Victoria, the two little counties south of Uganda are Rwanda and Burundi, the country to the right of the lake is Kenya and the lower half of the lake is in Tanzania. The great big country in the middle is the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
A closer look at Uganda shows the lakes that follow the rifting along the western edge of the country. The border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is very mountainous, as is much of both Rwanda and Burundi. When flying into Uganda most flights stop in Kigali, Rwanda and then on to Entebbe, Uganda. From the USA we fly to Amsterdam, London, Brussels, or Dubai on Delta/KLM, Qatar, Emirates or Turkish Air. You can figure 22-28 hours travel to get to Entebbe from most anywhere in the US.

Once in Uganda your escort/guide will get you to a hotel and settled for a day of rest and recuperation. Kampala is the capital of Uganda and is a very busy town but Entebbe is where the airport is and most tourism visits begin here. As in most African countries individual and family wealth is modest. Most families have a plot of land upon which they reside and produce crops for the table. Most rural plots are sold in the half-hectare size (50m x 100m) which is about 1.23 acres in our measure. Many houses do not have running water and electricity. Very few people own automobiles. Most transport and locomotion is done by walking although there is a recent surge in the use of “border border” (boda boda) for taxis and transport. The “border borders” are small (very quiet, thankfully) motorcycles that will act as Ubers, taxis, pick-up trucks, and messenger services. They pick up and move most anything from place to place; people, pineapples, lumber, pipes, chickens, families, commuters, and we saw one with a cow strapped to a board and balanced on the motorcycle. There are swarms of them in every populated place. They are driven by young men almost exclusively and the vehicles are owned by some entrepreneur who hires them out to the drivers. It is quite a change from seeing decades of people on foot to now seeing about half the population riding on the back of a motorcycle.

There are few ways to carry things; on a vehicle, in a cart or wagon, on a beast of burden, on your shoulder, or on your head. In much of the world it is a physical effort to get things done and that is true for much of Africa. I have been told over the years that there is almost no osteoporosis in these countries as the exercise gained from daily living keeps it at bay. Wood gathering is a woman’s task during the week and the kids help on the weekends when they are out of school.
We were birding along an old pathway called The Royal Mile when these ladies passed by on the way home with a day or two’s supply of fuel. Forest wood is burned as gathered and also as charcoal that is produced and sold as a cash crop by many residents.
The “border border” (often written and pronounced as boda boda) mode of travel has become ubiquitous. The motorcycles are from either China or India and there are hundreds and hundreds of them. Both plantain and bananas are grown widely in Uganda. It seems to me that all the bananas and all the citrus and all the charcoal vendors are clustered together by type. Lots of bananas in one place and so on. I think I’d move further on down the road. BUT, I believe they gather in clusters because they share a part of the economy. Africans are friendly and hang out with friends at every chance. The citrus people gather and talk about family, weather, and citrus and the same with the plantain people and so on. These folks probably speak Lugandan to each other. But they certainly speak English and Swahili as well. In addition they will have their home/tribal language and perhaps a couple abutting tribal languages as well. There are about 50 active languages in Uganda. Thus they all speak three base languages and probably can use two to four other languages as well. It is a rare African who cannot speak at lease three languages. These East African countries have long had ties to coastal economies as well as inland economies. Thus they are cosmopolitan in the same way Europeans are. Swahili is a coastal tribal group but the language is a dynamic blend of Arabic, Kiswahili, English, and other useful words from other languages. Kiswahili is spoken throughout Kenya and Tanzania and less so in Uganda.
If you were to see 100 internal combustion vehicles on the Ugandan roads there would be about 50 little motorcycles (boda boda), 10 taxi vans, 10 trucks, 10 tourism vehicles, 10 official/government vehicles, 5 buses, and 5 privately owned vehicles. The luxury of a private vehicle is uncommon. Gas is sold by the liter (about 3.8 liters to the US gallon) and the cost was just over $6 a gallon in most parts of the country. Much of Africa has been hurt by both supply chain issues and the impacts of the Ukrainian situation. Petroleum and grains are harder and harder to come by south of the Sahara.
I mentioned taxis – this is a taxi; full of people and topped with lots and lots of stuff. There are point-to-point taxis as well as flag-me-down taxis. In the past years I have rarely ridden in one of these but I traveled for hours and hours in one in western Africa and it was a bit crowded and really rather pleasant – aside from the language problem that I had. You can see from the writing on the vehicle that the Chinese and Muslim cultures are part of African life.
I guess I would call this a taxi stand. Lots of young men waiting to get a call to pick up a fare. As I mentioned there are scenes like this in every populated place. The motorcycles are often Bajaj. Bajaj is one of Indias’s leading makers of motorcycles and three-wheelers.
This is my favorite. I don’t know if this is a child, two parents, a suitcase, a bag of clothing, and a couple chickens or if this is a mother and a boda boda driver. But it is cool. This is how travel takes place for the majority of the population in rural Uganda.
Everywhere we went we were scrutinized. Not many white people wander these hills and fewer still look at birds and then move on. We were a wonderment for the people, especially the kids. You might note that the three year old on the right has his machete ready to help with weed control or wood gathering or crop harvesting. Not a scene we would see in the US.
Children love school. They can learn and socialize. Whenever I have stopped near a school on the weekend there are always children that appear out of nowhere to look at us and try out their English. It is always heart warming and a treasured safari moment.
School children have uniforms. As you can see here the upscale city schools have more upscale and city outfits. As I mention these are friendly people and seeing young teens walking with little children is common and not a real chore for these kids.
Yes, I know we went to Uganda for birds and mammals – and they will be along shortly. I do want to do a post on food and crops and such but will get into the wildlife shortly. The group saw over 500 species of birds and we had 12 or 13 species of primates…pretty impressive

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