An African Story

aerial view of an island

An African Story


Leaving London

The day before the July 11, 2010, FIFA World Cup Finals in Johannesburg was exciting to travel from London to Entebbe. Kenyan Airlines’ flight attendants wore black T-shirts with bold, white letters reading, “Go Africa.” The new more critical role the African continent had assumed in the world’s economy was evident by pride filling the plane. The man who sat next to me was obviously a wealthy black South African now living in London, impeccably well dressed and sporting expensive Louis Vuitton travel bags and color-coordinated leather moccasin footwear. 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 to avoid having to force shoes on swollen feet after our long flight ended. That man, with his Oxford accent, turned to me with a cheeky grin and asked, “What team do you favour?” My unfamiliarity with football must have been palpable after I demurred, questioning: “What teams are playing?” With a confuting tone, he countered in what must have been a quintessential gotch-ya moment, considering our relatively brief encounter together: “Well, the Netherlands and Spain, of course!”, as though, based on some sort of more advanced logical or reasoned deduction than my mere native talents possessed, he conclusively proved my query to be blatantly disingenuous. Incessantly, he volunteered: “I’m going to the games in Johannesburg!” I was not able to respond topically other than an amiable, “Enjoy your trip”. I suppose I was simply out of balance or too self-absorbed with my going to the African continent as a matter of the first instance to pay attention to the conventional sporting event of the year. For whatever reason, I did not want to engage in a tête-à-tête about the football game in Johannesburg. After the flight attendants had served our meal, I reclined my seat and leaned back against my headrest for a nap.

Nairobi, Kenya

Kenyan Airlines KQ101 landed in Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi at approximately 07:00 in the morning, 04:00 London time. The plane stopped at the gate, and the captain turned off the fasten your seatbelt placard above our heads and on the forward bulkheads. A bell chimed simultaneously. We stood up, collected our carry-on bags, and queued next to our seats. I looked at the man who had sat next to me during the past ten to twelve hours and cautiously said, “Enjoy the games in Johannesburg,” all the while expectant that he would not reply with additional comments regarding his trip. As luck would have it, almost immediately after my parting words, the flight attendant opened the exit door, and I, along with the other passengers, disembarked the plane and walked up the jetway toward the immigration control and transfer areas of the airport.

While browsing through a few gift shops and again while waiting in the lounge at the departure gate for my connecting flight to Entebbe, I was surprised to hear Kenyans talking about football, too. At least for the few people I met at the airport, Kenyans seemed likewise excited, not so much for either football team but more in support of South Africa, a new, reconstructing majority-run nation, hosting the games for a United Africa. That made sense. As for me, though, I thought about my African-American friend, Julian Bartley, a senior United States diplomatic officer whom I had met in Seoul, South Korea, in the 1990s. Julian and I had countless hilarious experiences together at the embassy when I was a young naïve lawyer.

Entebbe, Lake Victoria and Kampala

After a short connecting flight from Nairobi, we landed at the Entebbe International Airport around 9:30 am.

I vividly recalled my first visit to Phnom Penh and my first drive on National Highway 5 westerly more than three hundred kilometers to Battambang Province near the Thai-Cambodian border. What I saw shook me to the core of my being. I could not have imagined the complete and utter hopelessness the Cambodian people suffered on a day-to-day basis. That evening, when I returned to the Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh, I felt like I had wasted my time. I thought we should quit now. Save our money. There was no hope for these children. We did not have enough resources to help. I feared that if we were to make a capital investment at any level, we would waste our money. Then, I stopped hiding behind my lack of experience, ended my self-centered rationalization, and focused on our mission – not to change the world but to do our share to help repair the world by building primary schools while emphasizing the importance of enabling girls to attend school — one school at a time.

After I built our first primary school in Battambang Province, Cambodia, for four hundred elementary school girls and boys, I had a new perspective of managed expectation. I applied those experiences to my anticipated journey in Uganda. When we arrived in Entebbe, I just braced myself for a bumpy ride.

My initial impressions of the Entebbe Airport were positive. We walked down the airstairs across the tarmac, entered through the glass doors, and walked directly to the Ugandan immigration and border control. The queue was short. The Immigration Officers appeared welcoming and greeted us with a smile. Processing went smoothly – an essential point for travelers like me. I handed my passport and CDC 731, World Health Organization International Certificate of Vaccination, card to the immigration officer. He stamped my passport and I entered. It was just that simple.

The baggage claim was straightforward. I claimed my luggage, and I walked through customs without any unpleasantness every seasoned traveler wearily fears. Of course, the facilities did not provide the same excellent airport experiences offered by the Hong Kong International Airport, but, relatively, they were better than fighting one’s way through the off-putting mess at JFK in New York City.

After I cleared customs, I met my new friends, Charles and James, our local driver and Swahili translator.

From the Entebbe Airport, about thirty-five kilometers from the capital of Kampala, I caught my first sights of Lake Victoria, the great lake named after England’s Queen Victoria I by John Hanning Speke in 1858, the first European accredited for discovering the lake and the source of the Nile River. The views were awe-inspiring. The vast expanse of open waters reflected wavering light through our windshield, forcing us to pull down our sun visors. We did not have time to stop at the lake, to my chagrin.

— To Be Continued —


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