By Marie Javins
“What’s that?” I said, pointing to some straw and mud gunk on the side of our Murchison Falls home.
“Hippo shit,” responded my host, nicknamed Herr Marlboro because of his resemblance to the German Marlboro Man. “They flip their tails around when they shit, and it gets it all over the place.”
I hadn’t been aware of this when the hippo had wandered past our bed on the screened verandah the night before. I’d thought rain coming through the screen was our only concern.
I was living with Herr Marlboro in Murchison Falls National Park — the largest of Uganda’s ten national parks — for the summer. I worked daily on my laptop, desperately trying to meet deadlines, while H.M. was employed as a German development worker rehabilitating the park’s infrastructure.
The Shadow of Idi Amin
Uganda is — unfairly — best known for the times of Idi Amin, the mad dictator whose arbitrary, murderous whims were the stuff of horrifying legends.
But Uganda has come a long way since the fall of Amin in 1979. It is now an economic success story in East Africa. Its cities are safer than those of neighboring countries, and tourists come for Nile whitewater rafting, bird watching, and world-famous mountain gorilla trekking in addition to traditional safaris.
Wildlife Making a Comeback
Many of the safari animals were poached and eaten by during the desperate Amin times, but under the protection of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, they are making a comeback. We regularly spotted giraffes, elephants, baboons, monkeys, gazelle, hippos, warthogs, buffalo, crocodiles, and antelope as we went about our daily business.
Occasionally, we’d see a lion, and one night we encountered a pride of ten adult lions and countless cubs. We never spotted a leopard, but often ran into one UWA ranger who excelled at leopard-spotting.
“Just ahead, turn right by the acacia tree—you can’t miss it!”
We always missed it.
Not So Sweet
One day in early September, I got to know a bit more about the hippos than I’d intended to. I learned that they are not as sweet as they look, and that the statistic about the hippo being the biggest killer in Africa is to be taken seriously.
Murchison Falls National Park is located on both the north and south side of the Nile. There is no bridge, and everyone uses the hourly ferry to cross from the lodge area—on the south side—to the safari area in the north. The ferry is kept on the south side, which ensures the safety of guests as northwestern Uganda has rebels and also borders Congo.
H.M. and I had gone on a disappointing afternoon game drive in which we’d spotted only some giraffes and gazelles. We waited for the ferry on the north side, which we could see was still loading cars on the south side.
It Seemed Safe…
A hippo was eating grass in broad daylight at the northern ferry landing. H.M. took his digital Rebel camera and headed over. This hippo seemed habituated to people so he got closer than he normally would have, within 50 feet. It seemed safe so I followed suit with my film Rebel.
The hippo was covered in fresh scars and deep wounds. Perhaps it had been involved in a territorial dispute or in a fight with a lion or crocodile.
“Click, whirr” went our Canons.
Then, through my 70-300 mm Canon zoom lens, I saw the hippo stiffen and look up. His face changed from “I like to eat grass” to “I will kill you, tourist.” I clicked the shutter. He charged.
H.M. and I both ran for our lives, straight to our truck. We were lucky to have a head-start on the angry hippo as he could easily have outrun us. As we were both about to leap up onto the pick-up bed, the hippo slowed and returned to eating grass.
Some rangers were laughing at us from a distance. We joined in, full of adrenaline. We didn’t really think the hippo could have killed us as we had been pretty close to the truck. But all the statistics of hippo deaths had run through my head as I ran, thinking “Stupid, Marie, very stupid.”
For a moment, my deadline tensions were forgotten. I laughed together with H.M. and the rangers as we crossed the Nile.
As pleasant as it was to live in a national park amidst hippos and warthogs, I had to face reality for a few weeks every month. I had rented an apartment in the city of Kampala, and would stay there while making use of Uganda Telecom’s free Wi-Fi hotspots to upload my freelance files to servers in the USA.
A large boulevard full of mini-bus taxis (“matatus”) divides Kampala into the new city and the old city.
The old city — which reeks of diesel fumes — is a chaotic warren of one-way streets, masses of people, and motorbike taxis (“boda-bodas”) hustling for fares.
This is the part of town for bargains and for second-hand clothing from the U.S., sold in the open-air Owino Market. Stalls are hives of activity, as sellers dig through mounds of old clothing. Others sew up seams, while charcoal fires heat up irons, which are used to make the clothing look nearly good-as-new. Tourist Hotel, a decent one-star hotel with $25-a-night rooms, is located in the middle of the old city.
The new city is home to expensive hotels, wide roads, traffic circles, upscale restaurants, a golf course, and new shopping malls. Stop by Garden City Mall or the Lugugo “Game” store and you might be forgiven for thinking you were in a medium-sized city back home.
Neither part of the city features tourist attractions, but if you are going to Uganda for a safari, gorilla or chimpanzee tracking, bird-watching, or the action sports at the town of Jinja, you’ll be visiting Kampala to book activities and to exchange your home currency for Ugandan shillings.
Seven Muddy Hills
Kampala is built on seven hills—muddy hills as demonstrated by the red dirt that eternally lived on my Tevas—and my apartment was a few miles from the one that is home to downtown. I lived past Kabalagala, where the aid agencies and American embassy are located.
“Mzunga, mzunga,” the children would call to me as I walked to the road to flag down a shared mini-bus taxi heading towards my favorite Internet hotspot. A mzunga is a foreign person, or maybe just a white person. I never heard the literal translation, but it was clear from everyone’s catcalls that I indeed was the spitting image of a mzunga.
For travelers without rented cars, shared mini-bus taxis are the best way to get around Uganda outside of the Kampala center (motorbike taxis are dangerous but fast for travel within the city — take one at your own risk). Mini-buses leave when full but don’t operate on a timetable. They go just about everywhere and have set fares.
Both mini-bus taxis and motorbike taxis always keep the bare minimum amount of fuel in their tanks. One day I stopped for gas three times and only left my apartment once.
Another day, I inadvertently rode the school bus.
I waved down the blue-and-white mini-bus taxi at my usual spot, on the paved road just in front of my apartment.
Mini-buses legally hold 14 passengers, a conductor, and a driver. It is common to squeeze plenty more people in on local routes, especially if those plenty more are small children.
We stopped in front of a small elementary school. A teacher gave some coins to the conductor and ushered six uniformed children toward the bus. The conductor got out and lifted the smallest children, who couldn’t have been more than 4-years-old, onto the first seat.
It Takes a Village
The kids were well-behaved and smiling. They all sat squished together. As their stop came, the medium-size kid squeaked.
“Mah-sow!” It’s the Luganda word for “stop.” English is the official language of Uganda, but there are dozens of tribal languages present as well. Luganda and Swahili are the most common.
The driver pulled the taxi over and the conductor opened the sliding door. A mother was waiting in front of a three-walled butcher shop. She took her kids from the bus.
We proceeded on until the other kids squeaked “mah-sow.” The rest of the children disembarked. Passengers helped lift the kids to the sidewalk. Several walked off together down a dirt road. The conductor took two kids by the hands and walked them across the street, before returning to his spot in our minibus. It does indeed take a village, even in the city.
Marie Javins is a semi-nomadic writer, editor, and comic book colorist. Her blog about writing a book while living in Africa is at MarieJavins.com.