My musings…

Archive for April, 2011

Bitereko: 13 April 2011

Today Tommie and I separated.  She headed south to Ishasha to see the climbing lions and Bwindi for the gorillas (this was too expensive for my blood – it is $500 just for the permit to see the lions). 

I headed east to the village of Bitereko.  In 2008 I met a woman named Beatrice.  She is a high school history and geography teacher, but she came into contact with Forest Trends because she heads a group which plants trees for carbon sequestration with a Ugandan NGO called Ecotrust.  She had invited me to her home at that time, but I don’t think either of us ever believed that I would be in Uganda.  When she arrived at the workshop, one of the first things she said was “you must come to visit Bitereko”, and so I did.

Within the Bitereko Carbon Community group, there are several institutions including schools as well as a church, and over 300 individuals who have varying plot sizes.  Ecotrust acts as a broker to find the buyers and connect them with the carbon sellers.  Most of the buyers are in Europe where industry is restricted regarding the amount of carbon they can emit.

We met Beatrice in Ishaka, a small town about 1.5 hours from the park entrance.  From there we travelled on dirt roads first to the school where she teaches.  There I met the headmaster and some of the other teachers and saw the reforestation project the school is heading as well as the headmaster’s gardens.  We also went to visit one of the gentlemen who was among the original 5 sellers 8 years ago (many people were concerned that the buyers would arrive to take the peoples’ land).  It was interesting to see the different gardens and hear each person’s experience.  We had lunch at a local hotel (goat meat, rice and matoke) before heading to a small meeting with the Executive Committee of the BCC and an Ecotrust representative.  I was a bit taken aback by the formality of the ordeal, but it was interesting to see as well.  Afterwards, the chairman of the group invited us to his school to see their project (there is actually a group of kids who volunteer to take care of the plot) and then we went to the church to talk with the priest and see his work with the trees.   It was all very interesting to observe first hand.

In the evening, we went to Beatrice’s house.  It was four of us – Beatrice, the guide from the park (Bosco), the driver(Vicent) and myself, but they prepared enough food for 12 people.  There was matoke, rice, goat meat, ground nut sauce, cooked cabbage, the local specialty millet bread (which is not bread at all) and dessert of jackfruit (which is VERY sweet), pineapple and oranges.

Stuffed silly, we sat back to talk and slowly other people came including Beatrice’s sister Justine and two women who work at Beatrice’s primary school.  It was fun just to sit back and spend what seemed like a regular night with a local crowd.

Though white people do come through the village occasionally (especially to visit Beatrice) it is a rarity because it is over 1 hour from the nearest town.  There is no electricity or running water.  The kids were all very interested and shouted “muzungu!” as we drove by.  Many came to spy under the curtain which covers the door to see this white skinned girl.  Many of the adults also stopped to stare.  It did make me feel a bit uncomfortable, but it was worth it to experience the true Uganda.

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Queen Elizabeth National Park: 12 April 2011

We arrived at Mweya Hostel yesterday evening.  En route we passed the equator, so we are now in the Southern Hemisphere.  We also saw a group of forest elephants and a hippo right along the road before arriving.  At night there were many bats flying around eating up the insects.  We also saw a few church mouse lizards which are apparently called this because they are often found in churches and are very patient waiting for long periods for a fly to pass which they gobble up for dinner.  An elephant was also just outside the bushes near the camp.

Queen Elizabeth National Park was formed in 1952 under the name Kazinga National Park.  It was renamed, however, in 1954 after Her Majesty visited the park.

This morning we woke up early for a game drive.  We were greeted by a beautiful sunrise over the Kazinga Channel which connects Lakes Edward and George.  The sunrise started as a dark purple and then changed to reddish, then to orange and finally yellow.  There was a group of elephants right next to the road which was pretty incredible.  In the trees there are also huge nests built where main branches stem off of the tree which are for the hammerco birds which have some crazy looking heads.  They are also known as the “king of birds.”

We also saw another hippo, two rabbits and a spotted hyena.  We crossed over into another part of the park where we saw a female lion.  It was incredible just to sit and watch her for a bit.  We were also the only vehicle for awhile, which was awesome.  There were also a lot of loser buffalo sitting around.

We drove for a little before spotting 5 more female lions in a group laying in some tall grasses.  I thought here were only 2, but the guide insisted there were 5 and he was right.  Soon they started to move around and chase a few kob around.  We think they were hunting as they were forming themselves into a circle (and we saw one more down the road a bit).  The guide said that normally the lions form a large circle around their intended prey and send one of the young lions to chase it.  The others come in from the other sides and aid the young lion.  The lions were super close to us and we watched them for quite a while.  Many other vehicles joined us while we observed the lions which was a bit annoying, but the guides said during the peak periods, there might be 40 or more vehicles all one right after another which would be WAY too many for me!

We also saw a few vultures and crested cranes – the national bird of Uganda – before heading to the fishing village.

There at least 11 villages which can be found within the national park.  I am a bit torn on this strategy as these people do damage the environment and kill animals (the night before we arrived, they poisoned an elephant which the guides say was very friendly and would allow you to pose with her and feed her bananas), but I am not sure where they would go or what they would do if they were to be forced out.  On the other hand, these folks are not native to this area, but are migrants who have formed temporary villages on many different lakes.  Either way, they are there and they greatly benefit from the tourism industry.  Not only do the hotels and restaurants (also inside the national park) buy most of the catch share of tilapia from the fishermen, they also receive 20% of the park’s revenues – though mostly in-kind through the construction of schools and health facilities.

Several of the fishermen had just returned from gathering their morning catch, it was interesting to watch as they arranged their nets for the next day’s journey.  There is no limit to how many fish they can catch and good fishermen catch 200 – 300 each day.  The guides say there is a minimum size (though I highly doubt this is enforced).  This kind of bothers me, though they say that there are plenty of fish compared to the number of fishermen, but without some sort of restriction and enforcement, it is likely that the fish stocks could become depleted sometime in the near future as they have been in other neighboring countries.

Another thing that bothered me was how much the guide insisted that the people in the village were happy because they were making money, were able to drink as much local brew (made from bananas) and pay as many prostitutes as they wanted to, but the people didn’t seem very well off.  Most of the kids seemed to have either a shirt or pants, but not both.  The outhouse latrines were all clumped together which would be an area into which I would not even venture (plus they’re really close to the lake which probably means everything is being washed into the lake).  Also everything just seemed dirty.

The folks in the fishing village also receive money from extracting salt from one of the nearby crater lakes.  (There are around 59 crater lakes in this area.)  This process is also not controlled in any way and to claim a plot in the lake, you just need to put up a “fence.”

We returned to camp for breakfast and were greeted by a warthog family.  We then walked up to the information center where they have skulls of some of the animals including an elephant as well as a dead bird and pinned butterfly collection.  Uganda has over 1,200 butterfly species which is nearly twice as many as there are in the US.  I sat on the porch for a little and just watched and listened to the birds.  In Queen Elizabeth National Park alone, over 600 bird species have been seen.

In the afternoon, we went on a boat ride in the Kazinga Channel.  The Kazinga Channel is completely natural and is 40 km long and 8 m deep.  Along the way we saw many elephants – some in the water – some mongoose, monitor lizards, crocodile, loser cape buffalo and a lot of birds.  The birds included the Nile/Egyptian geese, African spoonbills, African skimmers, African fish eagles, vultures, pink storks, pelicans, scarlet ibises and I don’t remember what else!  Many of these birds are migratory and come from as far away as Finland. The guides said that if we had come 1 month later, we would not have seen many of these birds since April is the last month they remain in Uganda.  In the mornings, it was incredible to lie in bed and just listen to all of their different calls.  It is like a symphony of birds.  I wish I could effectively capture all of the sounds since words obviously cannot do it justice.

In the evening we went to a little eatery which overlooks the channel.  We had a drink and just chatted as the sun set (though it was cloudy and sets on the opposite side from where we were).  When it got dark, we could see a crazy lightning storm occurring on the opposite side of the channel.  It was pretty incredible to watch – reminds me of the summer evenings sitting on the porch at home.  Soon, though, the wind started to blow the storm to our side of the channel, so we ran to take cover from what we thought for sure to be rain, but ended up being a strong wind and lightning storm which blew over us quickly as well.

Murchison to Queen Elizabeth: 11 April 2011

We woke up just before dawn to leave camp.  As I stepped off the porch, I couldn’t stop staring at the stars.  With no light pollution from anywhere (not even the campsite – no electricity at that time), we could see SOO many stars.  It was jaw-dropping.

As we drove out of the park, we saw probably close to 100 baboons in different groups sitting in the roadway.  All along the road there are huge mounds built by termites.  Some are quite elaborate and appear like castles.  These are also home to white flying ants.  Baboons and especially chimpanzees enjoy feasting on these insect.  The Budongo Forest Reserve lies at the southern part of the park and many chimps are found in this area.  Some of the chimps that we will see out at Ngamba Island later this week are originally from this area.

We dropped Beto (my boss) off in Masindi as his plane ticket was for the next day and headed back towards Hoima.  We were slightly delayed by a tractor and wagon which was stuck in a ditch.  The boys herding cows took pictures of the muzungus (white people) which I guess was okay because we were taking pictures of their ankole (cows).  Everything is much greener than I expected it to be.  There is also very little trash along the roadways.  I am not sure if this is because there is less trash to throw out the window (I don’t think I’ve had anything other than water in a disposable bottle the entire time I’ve been here – not even an ice cream or a candy bar) or if there is a general consensus to protect the environment (which I doubt considering my conversations with Ugandans).

The one thing that does line most roadways are huge burlap sacks which are filled with charcoal – the primary fuel source for most homes.

After Hoima, we continued to Queen Elizabeth National Park along dirt roads up and over many hills.  The area just after Hoima used to be rainforest, but it has all been cut down to make room for agriculture.  I am amazed to see that the majority of the people working in the fields are women, though there are some men and also children there as well.  I am also amazed by the quantity of things people (mostly women, but also some men) are able to balance on their heads.  Even odd-shaped things like logs more than 2 meters in length are easily balanced and transported long distances on the tops of human heads.  There is probably a distance of 5 – 10 km between “towns” which all appear to be very similar concrete and brick buildings with metal doors.  Most shops seem to be closed, but those that are open appear to sell a little bit of everything.  There are few houses in town and some people must walk very far to get there.

The kids in their brightly colored uniforms (think pinks and teals – perhaps it is for easier visibility) also walk very far to attend school.  During their breaks it seems as though they all enjoy playing soccer/futbol.  Most of the kids wear no shoes.  Both boys and girls often have their heads shaved for ease of control. (And believe me, after being here for 2 weeks, I’d love to take a razor to mine!)  The girls always wear skirts or dresses.

Everyone must walk far to collect water for the day.  In some towns, there is a pump well to which everyone brings their yellow jerry cans to fill for the day’s use.  In towns with no pumps, the cans are filled at any available source – many times the same rivers being used to wash cars or cows.

If there is only one can, it is normally carried on someone’s head (and often there is a child following behind with a repurposed gallon-size cooking oil jug following behind).  Sometimes four or five of these cans are loaded onto a bicycle for ease of transport.  They also often attach 20+ pineapples or four or more stalks of green bananas to a bicycle to transport to market.  (Many times they ride the bikes down the hill then push them up the opposite side.) The green bananas form the staple food of Ugandans – matoke.  Matoke is like a really thick green banana mush.  It doesn’t have much flavor and I assume it has low nutritional value, but it is certainly filling.

Some of the houses outside of town are also made of brick (and there are many, many brick kilns similar to the one I visited when I was in Machachi, Ecuador the summer of 2007).  Other houses are concrete or mud with metal or thatched roofs.  More traditional houses are round instead of square.  Most homes have two small buildings.  The larger of the two (though still not large, maybe 10’ x 15’) which is used for sleeping) and the smaller (maybe 8’ x 8’) is used for cooking.  Most families have 8 – 12 kids.

The names of the places are fun to pronounce, like Kyenjojo and Katooke, but there are also very British names like Fort Portal and Lake Albert (or Queen Elizabeth National Park, for that matter).  Churchill once said that Uganda is the Pearl of Africa, and from what I’ve seen thus far, I am starting to believe him.

In addition, Uganda still has kings and kingdoms which seem to be mostly symbolic, but still have an influence on the culture of each region – especially the way people think and act.  The king from the Bunyoro Kingdom sent his Secretary to our meeting in Hoima to learn more about payments for ecosystem services and it is only with his nod of approval that many people in the kingdom will seriously consider such a program.  The youngest king is now 18 or 19, but was crowned at age 3 when his father passed away.  He is the King of Tooro Kingdom which encompasses Fort Portal and nearby regions.

A LOT of tea is grown in this region of the country.  Most of it is for export including for companies like McLeod Russel.  People who pick tea make 150-200 Ugandan shillings per kilo of tea picked.  There are 2400 shillings to one dollar, so to make $1, a person must pick at least 26 pounds of tea leaves!

Murchison Falls National Park: 10 April 2011

The morning game drive started off pretty exciting as 2 hyenas crossed our path.  Hyenas are pretty shy and it can often be difficult to see them on the game drives.  Although we saw a good number of animals, I feel like we saw fewer than the day before, though I expected to see more in the cooler morning temperatures.  We saw fewer giraffes and elephants and no lions. 

We did, however, go to a pond referred to as the “hippo pool” where there were – can you guess? – hippos, of course!  Typically one dominant adult male lives with many adult females and the offspring (and perhaps a few submissive males).  If a juvenile male wants to take over, he can fight with the dominant male.  Many of the hippos have scars or even missing ears from biting each other during fights.  If the dominant male were to lose, he would go to find another group and challenge the dominant male there.

In the hippo pool, there were some crazy fisherman who paddle across the lake from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to go fishing in the hippo pool.  Apparently hippo dung provides a great food source for the fish, so in the hippo pool there are many, many fish.  I call the fishermen crazy, because fishing near the hippos is actually quite dangerous.  They can easily surface underneath a boat and flip it over.  In doing so, the fishermen can be thrown into the lake and be either killed by the hippos or a crocodile or drown.

We also saw a lot of buffalo in the morning.  Many were in large groups, but some were separated from the herd.  Our guide explained that sometimes the males fight and the losers are evicted from the group.  These losers form a small group sometimes (2 – 3 animals) for protection.  Rarely they succeed in wooing females to join them and form a new herd, but most times they are just waiting to die.

I cannot even begin to describe the beauty of the park. Words definitely cannot do it justice – expansive, breath taking, awe-inspiring – are just a few that come to mind.  It’s so much more than just the sights as well – the smells, the fresh, clean air, the sounds.  Wow.  That’s all I can say. The words and pictures do not even begin to do it justice.

The last part of our trip in the park was to go see the namesake of the park – the falls.  In order to do so, we took a boat up river for almost 2 hours.  On the way we saw many hippos and birds, a few crocodiles (including one huge one) and elephants.

Altogether, we probably saw 2 or 3 dozen elephants, adults and calves both male and female.  The youngest one that we saw was probably about 2 years old.  They had come to the river to drink water and spray it on themselves to keep cool in the midday heat.  They were majestic to watch, but their actions are quite destructive.  In the forests, they break many trees and bushes.  Near the river’s edge, they carelessly stomp on crocodile eggs laid just offshore.  In sucking up water, they destroy fish nurseries.

There are two main types of elephants – Asian and African.  Within the African elephants, there are both forest and savannah elephants.  The ones in Murchison Falls National Park are savannah elephants which are very wary and steer clear of humans.  The forest elephants are much more dangerous and liable to charge at vehicles.

I should mention that Murchison Falls National Park is mostly savannah in the northern part and forested in the southern part with a transition area in between.  In addition to the acacia, there are also sausage trees which are called thus because its fruits are shaped like sausages.  The fruits are used medicinally to cure stomach ulcers and diabetes.  The elephants eat them as well when they have stomachaches.  There was one section of the park that was covered in palm trees – these were “planted” accidentally by elephants who eat the fruit of the tree and then defecate the seeds in other areas.  I know that they showed us many more plants, but I cannot remember them all.

On the boat ride, we saw a snakebird which has a really long and slender neck which makes it appear to be a snake when it swims (yes, swims!) under water.  We also saw a few fish eagles which look similar to the American bald eagle and are able to spot fish 1.5 – 2 meters deep in the water and for distances of over 2 km.

The view of the falls from the boat was impressive, but not enough for our adventuresome souls.  Six of us got off of the boat to hike to the top of the falls – a distance of only 0.6 km, but a vertical ascent of 40+ meters. We were totally sweat-soaked when we reached the top, but it was totally worth it. The falls themselves are 45m high and only 6 meters wide, but over 300 cubic meters of water flow over them in the dry season.  During the rainy season, it can be twice that volume and some of the water diverts to form another waterfall called Independence Falls.  It has not been raining much here, so that part of the falls was dried up when we visited, but the power of the falls could definitely be felt while standing at the top.  It was a bit mind-blowing to sit there and take it all in.  Even as we were climbing across the rocks, you could feel them tremble a bit as the water rushed by.

Murchison Falls National Park: 9 April 2011

Today we left Hoima for Murchison Falls National Park.  We travelled for 3 hours on a bumpy dirt road to reach Masindi – one of the larger towns in the northwestern section of Uganda.  Along the way there were sugar cane fields which stretched for miles and miles.  These belong to a company called Kinyasa which processes the cane for local use and also for export.  There were also a LOT of ankole cows which have very long horns – a few feet long or so.

From Masindi we travelled on a nicely paved road to the park.  Murchison Falls National Park is the largest national park in Uganda, reaching almost 4000 square kilometers.  As we entered the park, we saw quite a few animals including the gray headed kingfisher which has a bright blue tail and is very beautiful.  We also saw a few baboons and I am fairly sure that I saw a large chameleon, but no one else saw it before it ran back into the forest.  One other cool bird we saw is the weaver bird which is bright yellow with a black face.  The male birds construct ball-shaped nests which hang down from the trees like Christmas balls.  If the male does not do a good job, the females will reject him and he will have to rebuild the nest.

Part of the way into our drive, we were attacked by tsetse flies which flew into our van from all sides.  Some tsetse flies carry African sleeping sickness which killed off the native populations which lived near the park in the 1920s and 1930s.  In the 1920s, the government created a small forest reserve in what is now the southern part of the park and in the 1930s they did the same in the north.  These two areas were connected in the 1950s, creating Murchison Falls National Park.

We checked into the Red Chilli Camp, had lunch, then left for a game drive.  To get to the area where the majority of the animals are, we had to take a ferry across the Victoria Nile.  The Victoria Nile starts about 80km west of Kampala and flows northwest through Murchison Falls National Park where it creates Lake Albert.  From Lake Albert, the Albert Nile flows out and north to Sudan and eventually through Egypt and The Nile.

Once we reached the other side, we hopped back into the van and headed around the park.  Along our drive, we saw SO many different animals, it was incredible.  There are 5 different types of antelope in the Park – okapi, kobs, hartebeasts, bush buck and water buck – and we saw MANY of all of them.

Warthogs were unexpected favorite animals.  The way they trot along with their tails straight up waving like flags in the breeze and their Mohawks flapping around is really cute.  It made me laugh every time that I saw them.  We also saw several giraffes, many different bird species (storks, guinea fowl, egrets) black and white colobus monkeys and buffalo.

The coolest part, though, may have been when we drove through the thickets and saw a female lion.  She posed for a few photographs before a young male lion followed behind.  Our guides told us it was very rare to see male lions, so that was definitely amazing.

The giraffe species that we saw in the park is called Rothschild’s giraffe and the interesting thing about them is that their spots get darker with age.  They can actually live up to 35 years.  We were very lucky to get very close to one of the older ones and observe him for a while.  Giraffes are very majestic as they walk with their heads held high and they love to eat the leaves of the acacia tree.  The acacia tree has very long, sharp thorns (3 – 4 inches long), but the giraffes are able to use their long tongues to pick the leaves.

We watched the sun set over the savannah as we rushed back for the last ferry back across the river.  Upon reaching camp, we took refreshingly cold showers, ate dinner and headed to bed.  We slept fairly well until we heard a loud munching sound outside of our window at 4am.  It was completely dark outside (there are a few hours each night when they cut off the electricity at camp) so it was very difficult to make it out at first, but there was a HUGE hippopotamus right outside of our banda window!  Apparently hippos spend most of their day in the water staying cool and at night they wander up to 10km, eating the whole time.  This one had probably come from the Victoria Nile to our camp which might have been 2 – 3 km away, but all uphill which surprised me he would walk so far, but there he was!  After the excitement, it took me a while to fall back asleep, but we had to rise early for a morning game drive.

Hoima, Uganda: 5 – 8 April 2011

Tuesday we travelled from Kampala to Hoima along a very nice road.  Before leaving, though, we drove around Kampala to see the sites.  Kampala is a HUGE city that is very spread out.  They say that the population of Kampala is 1.5 million at night and 3+ million during the day.  That means that there is A LOT of traffic.  So many cars move in and out and there does not seem to be an organized way of parking, so it is quite confusing and dangerous to drive in the city.  I definitely would not want to be the one to be in control of the car.  One of the interesting things was the Independence Monument which is in front of a mural painted with the history of Uganda.

Uganda has a fairly tragic history which is punctuated by the rule of Idi Amin – a brutal dictator who ravaged the country from 1971 – 1979.  He seized power in 1971 in a military coup, declared himself President of Uganda, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Army Chief of Staff, and Chief of Air Staff. He announced that he was suspending certain provisions of the Ugandan constitution and soon instituted an Advisory Defence Council composed of military officers with himself as the chairman.

Amin began his show of force by purging the country of those who supported the former president, Obote.  These were mainly from the Acholi and Lango ethnic groups, but later included other ethnic groups, eligious leaders, journalists, artists, senior bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, homosexuals, students and intellectuals, criminal suspects, and foreign nationals. In this atmosphere of violence, many other people were killed for criminal motives or simply at will. The killings, motivated by ethnic, political, and financial factors, continued throughout Amin’s eight-year reign. The exact number of people killed is unknown, but estimates range from 80,000 to 500,000.

Amin’s ally Muammar Gaddafi told Amin to expel Asians from Uganda. In August 1972, Amin declared what he called an “economic war”, a set of policies that included the expropriation of properties owned by Asians and Europeans. Uganda’s 80,000 Asians were mostly from the Indian subcontinent and born in the country, their ancestors having come to Uganda when the country was still a British colony. Many owned businesses, including large-scale enterprises, that formed the backbone of the Ugandan economy. On 4 August 1972, Amin issued a decree ordering the expulsion of the 60,000 Asians who were not Ugandan citizens.

In 1978, troops mutinied and Amin was forced to flee the country in April 1979.

Obote regained the presidency in 1980, but the national security forces continued to commit crimes against the Ugandan people.  Another coup threw Obote out of power in 1985, and the new president General Okello promised a number of reforms including improving human rights, though the military continued to commit heinous crimes under his leadership.  Museveni claimed the presidency in 1986 and has remained there since.  Human rights abuses have since mostly ended and economic reforms have been implemented.  There is, however, a rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army which abducts children to serve as soldiers and sex slaves which is still active, especially in the northern section of the country.

All of this has had a profound impact on Uganda’s development and its culture.

Kampala, Uganda: 3 – 4 April 2011

Sunday was our day of preparation at the hotel to ensure that everything was ready for our workshop the next morning.  We also were lucky to find the Ndere Troupe.  The Troupe is made up of youth from across the country who receive scholarships to study, but they also learn the traditional dances and songs from across country and perform them twice a week.  It was amazing to see and hear their talent.  They are quite gifted musicians and dancers as well.  They performed for nearly 4 hours (with running commentary from the owner of the place), but I did not tire of watching them.  They danced with grace and elegance and skill.  It was pretty incredible.

Monday was our meeting in Kampala.  It was well attended by representatives of the government and the private sector.  Everyone seemed to be really interested in the subject matter and realized the importance of biodiversity and other ecosystem services for Uganda.