Uganda 2 – more culture

I think a little background might be useful. I like Africa, African people, and African wildlife. I have spent more than 700 days on safari. And a related 100+ days on airplanes. I have shared my affection with lots of travelers. My wife TLF, The Lovely Frances, has been there several times as well and now understands and shares my affection for this continent and its residents. We went to Uganda because it was part of our home away from home, East Africa and because it would be new for both of us. For all the visits to Kenya and Tanzania (and Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Mozambique, Zanzibar, Morocco, Mauritania, Gambia, Senegal, Egypt, and South Africa) I/we had never visited Uganda. There were good birds, we were part of a good plan — after three year of pandemic delays we were finally able to undertake a trip planned for 2019. It was worth the wait.

As I mentioned in the last post, the land that is Uganda was greatly crumpled by unimaginable earthly pressures during the rifting and the volcanic episodes that followed. It is mountainous on the western side abutting the Democratic Republic of the Congo and less so on the eastern side toward Kenya. The lakes created in the rifting are evident to the west and south. The Great Rift Valley runs about 4,300 miles from Mozambique up to Lebanon and the Dead Sea, just east of the Mediterranean. This is a huge rip in the African continent.

There are lots of people living here. There are many languages spoken. There is relative harmony and cooperation. As an American I am always pleasantly surprised that the residents of these countries having hundreds of languages and tribal affiliations live so well together. It is a testament to thoughtful and caring political leaders like Nyerere of Tanzania and Kenyatta of Kenya. These two men essentially led the formation of these countries after they gained independence in the early 1960s. Uganda was developed during this period as well, excepting that Idi Amin took power in 1971 and ruled for eight years with military might as his driving force. This period delayed Ugandan development and for years it was the poor cousin of Kenya and Tanzania. That is a circumstance that has been changing during the past few decades. Ugandan economy and growth has been laudable recently.

There are cultural circumstances that have allowed Uganda to change and grow and there are cultural factors that describe the people and the economy. This post will help set the scene further and perhaps describe how and why Uganda exists in the form it now does. Again this will be pictures and captions.

This vista image is dominated by a tall Bossaras Palm. It is from the lower side (eastern) of Uganda and depicts savannah land and lowland forest. This is the most common habitat on the eastern side of the country and throughout most lower elevation areas. In Uganda lower elevation is about 2-3000 feet above sea level. In the montane forests you will hear about later the average elevation is about 7000 feet..
Bossaras Palm dominates as a low growing plant in the lowlands and eventually as a tree-like palm scattered across the savannah lands. Grasses grow between the palms in these areas and this is where many of the grazing animals reside.
This is rather typical Bossaras palm habitat with smallish young plants and the stems or trunks of older palms as well. The long-faced animal in the front right is a Kongoni or Hartebeest. This antelope has adapted to many African habitats and occurs in some form or another from South Africa up through northern Kenya.
But the savannah palm habitat is replaced by montane forest on the western side, the highland side, of Uganda. This image is of one of the many figs that grow in the forest. Most of the native trees are known by scientific name only and most of the plantings that are being undertaken are of “crop” trees and fruit trees. Crop trees are often the Australian Grevellea and Eucalyptus. These are plants that grow quickly and are harvested after a few years for poles that are used in small home construction. In some places where reforestation is done with native plants the underlying reason is to recreate or maintain habitat for Chimpanzees.
Coffee is grown through out the equatorial world at moderately high elevations. Coffee plants seem to do best in older volcanic soils, places with no frost and no searing heat, and lots of water. The two beans are inside a cherry and “washed” out and dried and roasted. Most coffee is the Arabica type though Robusta is easier to grow. Robusta is not as tasty and is seen as bitter – thus it is primarily used in instant and mass-produced commercial coffees. The flower is a bright white jasmine-scented flower that is quite striking. Picking is still done primarily by hand as the berries on a bush ripen at different rates and need to be picked when ripe.
Like coffee bananas are grown worldwide in the equatorial belt. There are more than 100 kinds of coffee plant and there are about 1000 kinds of banana. They vary in size, sweetness, color and nutritional value. Almost all bananas that are shipped into America are a type called Cavendish as they can be picked a bit early, travel well, don’t bruise easily, and are tasty. We also see Gros Michel and occasionally the smaller Lady Fingers or Red Bananas. Bananas and plantains are a staple food item in lower income countries around the world. Like the cassava/manioc/yucca plant in the next image bananas can be propagated long-term from a single plant. The banana tree will die after producing a single banana “growth”bunch”. But the root structure will send up new growth that can become another generation of producing banana “tree” (it is really a herb). It is never-ending with appropriate care.
On the front page of my fifth grade history book was a drawing of a tropical person sitting on a lever attached to a woven sleeve hung from a low tree branch, from which a white liquid dripped. This was manioc production. The plant is called Yucca, Casava, or Manioc depending on where you are and to whom you are talking. It is another world wide equatorial food staple. Like the banana it is a brilliant plant – it can be grown from a 12″ piece of old stem and harvested in a few months by digging out the longish, potato-like tubers. The stem can be cut at that point and replanted. It is a never ending food stuff grown widely in remote and rural villages. Also like bananas it produces enough food stuff to sell and can be a cash crop for local folk.
The roots or tubers of Yucca/Manioc/Cassava are now sold in your local super market. These roots shown above have been dried and are for sale along an Ugandan road. The tuber dries and can be flaked and then ground into a flour. In the USA we often see the flour as tapioca.
Growing tea plants is something done in Africa, India, and a few places in the US; like the Pacific northwest. Tea seems to like higher elevations with half-day sunlight and a good deal of rain.The plants are called “tables” and are pruned to be about waist high and spaced so you can walk between them.
The emerging leaves are twinned – a pair of fresh leaves are the target of the teas pickers. They walk between the tables picking just those two leaves. The leaves are tossed over their heads into a large woven basket that they wear on their backs. The baskets are brought to the shed and weighed and the worker’s salary is figured by weight.
The tea is then bagged and trucked to a production house where it is dried in the open and also in heated chambers.
Africa has no native cactus plants: but it has branchless, green skinned, prickly, white sapped plants that sure look like cacti. These are Spurge or Euphorbia. The sap is toxic and usually causes an irritation or burn when touched. The Euphorbia above is a favored perch of this White-browed Coucal. One type of Euphorbia is used as a fence when planted tightly making a boundary line. But there is no real commercial value to this group in Uganda.
The large Euphorbia is often called Candelabra Euphorbia and can be found scattered across the Horn of African down into the other East Africa countries. If you have been to Kenya or Tanzania you may have noticed it growing in parks and reserves mostly on the eastern side of the country/coast of east Africa. As a succulent it doesn’t survive well in areas that burn regularly. In Uganda , especially in the Queen Elizabeth NP, it is quite common. This is probably because there is a high population of grazers, mostly Ugandan Kob which keep the grasses cropped low making the fires less intense.
One of the plants that you probably have heard of is the wetland grass, actually a sedge, called Papyrus. This is, or was, a famous Nile River plant in historic times in Egypt. It is still rather common in Uganda along the many waterways that feed into the Nile system. The grass can be an inch or two thick at the base and grow as much as 12′ in height. It is topped off with a wispy cluster – this inflorescence is botanically an umbellate inflorescence.
The wet areas where papyrus grows can have all sorts of wildlife nearby. There are herons and egrets as you might expect and kingfishers as well. There are Nile crocodiles in the waters near by and fisherman looking for Nile perch, tilapia, and any of many catfish. As we were on a bird trip we were looking for birds – really good birds that is. This bird shaded by the fluffy umbel of the papyrus is a Papyrus Gonolek. It is a richly colored bird that I will share in some detail later….feel the tension and anticipation building?
The population of Uganda is largely rural though its cities are highly populated and quite cosmopolitan. Once the national parks were established and the boundaries set the people stopped clearing land and allowed the parks to remain pristine, or mostly pristine. Perhaps it was Dian Fossey’s work and worldwide acclaim that started the country planning to save and manage wild areas, or perhaps it was the release from the Amin period when so much wildlife was killed. Whatever the reason it is now a national goal to protect wildlife and manage wild areas – or allow them to manage themselves. This picture shows the stark boundary between the forested National Park and the cleared land of the agricultural Ugandans. It is here that the Impenetrable Forest and the Bwindi NP begin – and it is from this area that tourist can join groups to see the Mountain Gorilla.
As I said in the first post – we went to Uganda to see birds. The group list is over 500 species of birds and individual lists vary, but are all (probably) in the 400s. In the next posts I will share images of apes and chimpanzees, birds, other primates, reptiles, mammals of all sorts, and more birds. The birds will be featured because creatures like the Papyrus Gonolek, the prehistoric Shoebill, hornbills, and sunbirds deserve their own post.

The Europeans invaded/claimed/usurped and colonized Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most African nations didn’t have independence until the mid 1900s. Uganda was first managed by Great Britain in about 1860 and was a protectorate into the mid-1900s. The early years were during the period when the source of the Nile was a burning question and great white hunters wrote books. Names like David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, John Speke, Mubarak Bombay, and Richard Burton all played a part in the late 1800s as the Royal Geographical Society sponsored the search for the Nile. Much of this happened in what is now Uganda and makes for exciting reading as trials and tribulations, egos and arguments, exploration and illness and eventually death followed the trail as Speke and Burton worked their way into the forests and mountains of Uganda and under each others skin.

A great book on the topic was published this year (2022) called; River of the Gods; Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile by Candice Millard.

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