Crossing Uganda: Towards the Rwenzori

I awoke to the light sound of rain against the windows. We had arrived…at the border post at least. After a long night crossing the bumpy dirt roads from Nakuru to Kisumu in Western Kenya and on to the border crossing at Busia, we had arrived at the Ugandan border just before the crack of dawn. The light rain and the crowds made this border crossing a messy & muddy affair but within an hour we were off towards Kampala with the rising sun and the creeping shadows of the day slowly joining us from behind. Immediately upon entering Uganda I could feel the change in landscape and climate from the drier stretches of Kenya. The air was wet but pleasant and the hilly terrain leading out to Lake Victoria just south of the road to Kampala was green and lush, dotted with tea, banana crops & even rice paddies. On our way to Kampala we crossed the youthful river Nile at Jinja, the point where the Nile originates from Lake Victoria. It was about 150 years ago that this source of the Nile was first discovered by Western explorers. By the mid-1800s, Victorian era explorers like Livingstone, Speke & Stanley were off on expeditions throughout East, Central, & Southern Africa and in 1858, John Speke first sighted (and named) “Lake Victoria” claiming it the source of the river Nile. By 1875, Henry Stanley circumnavigated the lake and confirmed that it was indeed the source of the White Nile. From here at the source in Jinja, the waters of the White Nile emerge from the lake beginning their long journey north before joining with the Blue Nile from Ethiopia and continuing on through the Sudanese desert towards Egypt and the Mediterranean providing an essential source of water & life to myriad ecosystems & communities along the way.

The silt & nutrients that were carried by the river north into the Nile Valley of Egypt were fundamental in the success of the Nile River Valley civilization and ancient Egypt as the seasonal flooding of the valley allowed for the nutrient deposits to fertilize the soils providing a vital base for the regions agriculture. Since the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1969 on the border of Sudan & Egypt however, the seasonal flows have been halted & controlled providing protection from the regular spells of flood & famine, a controlled irrigation scheme, which along with other agricultural advances has greatly improved agricultural productivity & output, as well as providing additional electricity generation.  Like most large dams in the world this one is not without negative externalities.  The dam has fundamentally changed downstream ecosystems of Nile River Valley by impeding the flow of nutrients north, causing increased erosion at the river mouth and forcing farmers to purchase ever more chemical fertilizers. Furthermore over 100,000 people were displaced from their homes, and numerous historical sights lost to the flooding that was a necessary result of the Dam. By 1954, the Owens Falls hydroelectric dam at Jinja, the first on the Ugandan portion of the Nile was completed and started providing electricity to Uganda, Western Kenya, and Tanzania although like many things in Uganda the condition of the dam deteriorated under the rule of Idi Amin in the 1970s. By 2011 the new Bujagali Dam was completed just down river with the help of mostly Western Investors including the International Finance Corp (a member of the World Bank Group). Again there are certainly benefits to these dams including job creation and the increased renewable energy production, however it is important to realize the potential influence that these dams may have on both local communities surrounding the lake as well as downstream communities thousands of miles away. Like other vitally important sources of fresh water in the world today, from the great rivers of the Himalaya in South & East Asia to the untamed rivers of southern Chile and Alaska, this watershed still has the potential to fuel local & international disputes from disagreements on water sharing & use.

Kampala was a pleasant city feeling much smaller and less “urban” than the big city lights of Nairobi. This feeling was enhanced by the pleasant climate aided by the surrounding lake & wetlands and the slight elevation. However, the local New Horizon Bus terminal which served as a gateway to western Uganda was anything but pleasant. Like many of the matatu stages (matatu’s are 14 person public transport taxi vans & the stages are basically terminals from where passengers board or disembark) I had encountered in Kenya, the chaos of these transport hubs is only enhanced by the fact that you are obviously a stranger in a foreign territory. Within seconds of walking into the madness I was approached by 5 different conductors physically pulling me by the arm to board their busses without concern as to where I actually planned on going. At this point I may as well have been a lifeless piece of cargo with each conductor just wanting their slice of commission from me. Luckily I have been trained to handle this sort of situation, so I thought, and so after having to forcefully detach myself from the grip of a few grown African men’s arms I sought the solace of some of the “quiet” stalls lining the side of the station. Rule number one in transport through chaotic hubs is don’t let the chaos confuse you into making an irrational & quick decision giving your money (or time) away to the wrong people. Take your time, breathe, think through your options, and plot a reasonable course of action. This is really like many decisions in life although it happens at a much quicker pace here in a crowded & buzzing bus terminal in the heart of Africa. Most busses here in East Africa don’t necessarily have set times for departure, but rather they leave as soon as they fill up with enough passengers. As such, a classic way that matatu conductors will try to rip foreigners off is to have you board an almost empty van, take your money, and have you sit in the vehicle for hours waiting for the van to fill while other vans, having already filled, are leaving. So after realizing that there were basically two bus companies that would be able to take me out west, I boarded the bus with the most people already on it, paid my fare to the conductor and got myself a good window seat. With word from the conductor that we would be leaving within the hour, my observation that the bus was nearly full, and a comfortable seat at the front of the bus I felt confident that I was in a good place. However within two hours we were still sitting in the busy bus terminal. Right around this time another empty bus rolled into the bus station and almost immediately the entire bus, disembarked and quickly boarded the empty bus. The few local passengers also travelling to western Uganda with me commented that this is a trick that the local conductors use sometimes; People who have paid for a bus ticket but whose bus has not yet arrived are directed to sit and wait on a different bus in order to give off the illusion that a bus is almost full and ready for departure. Feeling totally duped by this point and already having given my money away there was nothing else to do but wait. Eventually 5 hours later, the bus had refilled with passengers and was ready for departure. Our delayed departure had moved back our expected arrival time from around 6 or 7pm to closer to midnight…Never a great thing when arriving in a new foreign town in the heart of Africa. Luckily for me the bus driver was friendly enough to agree to take me directly to a guesthouse in town where he would spend the night as well so that I wouldn’t have to wander around the new place late at night. Knowing this the rest of the bus ride out west was quite pleasant with the almost full moon shining down on Queen Elizabeth National Park and her lakes as we sped through the night towards Kasese.

This entry was posted in Africa, East Africa Travel, Nile River, Travel, Uganda. Bookmark the permalink.

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