An African Story

An African Story


The day before the 2010 World Cup Finals in Johannesburg was an exciting time to travel from London to Entebbe. Kenyan Airline’s flight attendants wore black T-shirts with white lettering reading “Go Africa”. The new more important role the continent had assumed in the world was evident by pride filling the plane. The man who sat next to me was obviously a wealthy African living in London, impeccably dressed and sporting fancy travel bags and color coordinated leather moccasin footwear. As for me, well, although I sat next to him in business class, I traveled with scuffed-up carry-on bags tossed “to and fro” during my travels around the world and flip-flops so my feet would not hurt from swelling and forcing shoes on after the flight. That man, with his Oxford accent, turned to me with a cheeky grin and asked: “What team do you favour?” My ignorance of football must have been unmistakable after I demurred: “What teams are playing?” With a confuting tone, he countered in what must have been a quintessential “gotcha” moment for him: “The Netherlands and Spain, of course!”, as though, based on more advanced logical or reasonable deduction, he conclusively proved my question false or somehow faulty. Continuing: “I’m going to the games in Johannesburg!” I suppose I was simply out of balance or too self-absorbed with my going to Africa as a matter of first instance to pay attention to the conventional, and leaned against the back of my headrest for a nap.

After a long night’s flight, the plane landed in Nairobi at about 7:00 am. I was surprised to hear people at the Kenyatta Airport talking about football, too. At least for the people I met at the airport, Kenyans seemed equally excited, not so much for either team but in support of South Africa, a black nation, hosting the games for “Africa United”. That made sense. As for me, I thought about my friend, Julian Bartley, a senior United States’ consular officer whom I had met in Seoul, South Korea in the 1990s.  Julian, a good-natured, friendly and easy to talk to man, and his son, died during the embassy terrorist truck-bombings in Nairobi on August 7, 1998.

A short connecting flight and we landed in Entebbe around 9:30 am. I had previously visited several developing countries. I knew better than to have expectations. I just braced myself for a bumpy ride. My initial impressions were positive though. Immigration went smoothly – an important point for travelers like me. Customs was unlike America’s, or Europe’s for that matter. Ugandans appeared welcoming. And, I met my new friends, Oliver and Fred, our local driver.

From Entebbe Airport, I caught my first sights of Lake Victoria. The views were breathtaking. Waters shined softly with wavering light. We did not have time to stop though. We continued to Kampala, changed some money and bought water and light snacks including some chocolate covered cookies for Fred.

Exhausted from the long flight, I thought Oliver and I were going to stay at the Cassia Lodge on Buziga Hill in Kampala overlooking the shores of Lake Victoria for the night and drive the next morning to Kanyanga; after all, Oliver arrived on the same “red eye” from London.   We stowed our luggage in the back of Fred’s Land Cruiser. Oliver said: “We need to drive to Kumi today. It’s another six hours depending on whether we detour to Jinja. Are you up for it?” I did not want to appear to be uncooperative. I felt compelled to reply with an enthusiastic: “Yes.” I then recollected that Oliver had previously told me that we had reservations at the Kumi Hotel, a ten dollar a night mosquito’s nest with sporadic running cold water, and spasmodic electricity. Even though doctors inoculated me against yellow fever ten days earlier and I had taken my second daily Malarone prophylaxis for malaria or, maybe I was just irritable from having broken my hand in Shenzhen, China several weeks earlier, for whatever reasons that raced through my mind, I just did not have the appetite to stay there. Oliver’s portrayal was enough. I did not need to experience that paradise to know better. I urged Oliver, instead, to stay at the Mt. Elgon Hotel in Mbale, about a forty minutes’ drive southeast from Kumi and another hour to Kanyanga, a definite upgrade for the night; I thought.

Providence had life-saving plans for Oliver and me that night. We detoured to Jinja, driving along Toror-Jinja Road (A-109), an extremely worn tarmac, about 87 km (54 miles) east of Kampala, but still along the shores of Lake Victoria, for lunch and, surprisingly, a riverboat ride. I ate a deep fried, but scary looking fish caught from the lake. Fierce teeth and two burned out eye sockets protruded out of its head as if to caution me that it still had life left; stay away. After lunch, we walked to the river’s edge. Even though we were slightly north of the equator, the weather was amazingly comfortable, an incredibly pleasant day for the leaky boat ride from the eastern bank of the River Nile to Lake Victoria, some 6,400 kilometer (4,000 miles) south of the mouth of the Nile River and the Mediterranean Sea, three months as the water flows. The river was peaceful. It was easy to imagine John Hanning Speke on his 1862 exploratory safari up the “Omugga Kiyira” looking for the river’s source and his standing on the spot, today, marked by an obelisk near the western shore. I envision Speke rowed into Napoleon’s Gulf, the bay through which the waters of Lake Victoria funnel into the Nile, without even knowing he had crossed the elusive source. Other than swift currents, eddies and then obviously still waters immediately north, it appeared to be challenging to identify the place where the Nile begins, the fundamental basis for the Democratic Republic of Congo’s competing claim.

We left Jinja and, at 6:30 pm, arrived in Mbale, a town located on the western foot of Mt. Elgon, an extinct volcano, 120 kilometers (75 miles) northeast of Jinja. The locals are mostly Gishu, mainly the Bamasaaba and Bagisu tribes. While checking in at the Mt. Elgon Hotel, I asked the front desk staff what they were most proud about Mbale. They replied: “nightlife, a town clock; and, Mbale was in in “Casino Royale”. (An early scene of the movie was set in Mbale district but not filmed there; and, James Bond was not in the scene.)

Later, we joined a crowd of local Ugandans who had gathered around a big screen TV staged in the courtyard airing the World Cup final game from Johannesburg, all chattering about why they rooted for their respective teams. “They’re bores! There bores!” a heavy set, middle-aged Ugandan woman shouted. “They’re bores! They’re bores!” she repeated her pejorative slurs. It was easy to guess. She supported Spain. Then, near the 90th minute of the match, Uganda trembled. Al-Shabaab, a Sudanese Muslim terrorist group, suicide bombers concealed explosive devices under their clothing, entered the Ethiopian Village Restaurant, in the Kabalagala neighborhood, and denoted bombs murdering fifteen people. A second attack, consisting of two simultaneous explosions, occurred shortly thereafter at another soft-target, the Kyadondo Rugby Club in Nakawa, directly in front of a large screen TV showing the telecast from South Africa, murdering another sixty-one. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility. Their excuse: they carried-out the synchronized suicide bombings to retaliate for Ugandan support for the African Union Mission to Somalia and the United States’ supported transitional federal government in Mogadishu. Had Oliver and I stayed in Cassia Lodge that night, we would have been among the victims. We drove past the Rugby Club earlier on our way to Jinja. Oliver commented: “If you want to stay, we can watch the football game from here!”

Despite the murders and Al-Shabaab’s escalating rhetoric, we continued our mission deep into the African bush, first crisscrossing narrow cow paths, then navigating seemingly impassible terrain passing from time to time isolated circular mud huts hidden in the bush, and arrived at the site for the Teach Them To Fish Foundation’s first primary school in Bukedea District the next morning. Though, in retrospective, I was little prepared for the journey that lay ahead.

— To Be Continued —


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