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Westward Ho - Kampala to Mbarara

Surviving Rush Hour and the Vernal Equinox


On Monday, we embarked on our trip westward from Kampala to Mbarara, a drive of 238 kilometers (about 150 miles). We switched from the bus and spread out into three large vans and departed our Kampala hotel, Forest Cottages, before 8:00am. It was early enough to compare and contrast this busy city's rush hour to our own: the streets were teeming with cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes, and those sights plus road construction provided a similar feel to our own traffic congestion back home. The obvious contrast was the informal economy setting up on the roadsides: bananas, vegetables, fruit, crafts, all sold by unofficial vendors who select a piece of asphalt roadside to sell their wares for the day.


Our first destination on this road trip was a stop at the Equator Point in Mpigi District. I was surprised and delighted to see some kitschy little tourist traps here: the golden line painted on the red earth meant to illustrate the Equator's "location," along with the photo op provided by the giant Uganda Equator circle indicating the Northern and the Southern Hemisphere. There were shops to buy tee shirts and unique gift items, and a place to order coffee and a "Rollex" -- a Ugandan treat made with chapati bread filled with scrambled eggs and "rolled" into a burrito; hence the name, Roll + Eggs = Rollex. I have been smiling about (and yearning for) this sandwich ever since!


At this stop, there was a gentleman who demonstrated that water drains clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere, and straight down the drain directly on the Equator. Adults and kids crowded around the little birdbath while the gentleman demonstrated by filling the basin with water and then dropping a small pansy into the basin so that the swirl direction was visible; sure enough, the flower swirled to the right when we stood to the North of the golden Equator paint, to the left when we stood to the South of it, and the flower was sucked straight down the drain when the basin was placed right on the Equator line.


We continued on from that location for a bit, as Professor Maitha calculated where we were going to stop for our next oh-so-cool phenomenon: this day was the day of the March Equinox, when the sun is directly overhead at the Equator and there are the same number of hours of darkness and sunlight in the day. Professor was calculating where to stop based on the moment the sun would be directly above in this region.


We disembarked our vans and took pictures of our shadows, not "casting a shadow" but situated directly beneath us! This is one of my favorite photos of our Ugandan adventure, that of our three guides, Ronald, Joseph, and Michael -- with the shadows of their outstretched arms directly underneath them.


Finally, I could not resist a photo of the blazing sun directly overhead me, on this Magical March Equinox. To you, it may not be much of a picture, but to me, it symbolizes a special and fortunate moment in my life, to be at the Equator on this day!


Posted by lindaconnor 10:23 Archived in Uganda Comments (0)

Mbarara to Isingiro District


Our next two nights were to be spent at the Igongo Cultural Centre and Country Hotel in Mbarare. Our agenda was so packed and we arrived so late at night that we did not even realize it was a hotel and a museum together, and I regret we had no time to take advantage of that. Again, this is another missed opportunity that adds up to the necessity of a return trip to Uganda!

After a buffet breakfast quite early on Tuesday morning, we set off for our journey from Mbarara to the Isingiro district, approximately 24 kilometers southeast and close to the Tanzania border. We stopped a few times en route, first to view a monument to Henry Morgan Stanley, the Welsh American explorer credited with locating Dr. Stanley Livingston (who was exploring this area to locate the source of the Nile River). Henry Morgan Stanley is said to have become a blood brother of the Ankole king at that time, which is the event that the monument honors.

Our second stop and photo op was at the site of Lake Nakivale. Legend has it that Lake Nakivale suddenly and mysteriously disappeared from its original site in the dark of night, only to reappear in a new location. I have researched for info to no avail, so apparently this oral legend refers to some undocumented geological event that drained the lake to a lower spot.

From here we continued southeast for this relatively short distance trip that took over two hours due to narrow and bumpy dirt roads through tiny villages. Finally we arrived for our day of service at the Ngarama Girls Secondary School. This is a school for approximately 200 girls ages 13 to 20. We first met with the Board of Governors and the Principal of the school to discuss the mission of the school and Harper College's possible part to play in that mission, while we enjoyed homemade banana pancakes. We then broke up into small groups to immerse ourselves among the students, who are organized by age into four "forms" which equate to Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior levels. Our classroom discussion ranged from how the Ugandan educational structure differs from that in the U.S. to cultural influences on the school system, to schoolyard games and riddles.The motto of Ngarama girls school is Develop a Girl, Develop a Nation. These students were quite inspiring -- every one with aspirations to continue on to college and careers in law, medicine, architecture, engineering. I have thought of them often since - girls like Lillian, Brendah, Mercy, and their earnest teachers, Ben and Wilbur. (Note: thanks to NL for the Welcome Banner photo!)


We transitioned from the classroom to the beautiful day outside, where we first played some games and then helped plant over two dozen trees -- a gift from Harper College -- on the campus grounds. Two varieties, East African Mahogany (khahya anthotheca) and Umbrella (maesopsis eminii) were planted by Ngarama officials along with Harper College students and professors, with the assistance of the Ngarama students themselves.

The day was filled with smiles and hugs, but I could not ignore the underlying tinge of sadness not to know of a way to keep in touch. There is a serious lack of textbooks at this facility, not to mention the lack of computers and access to the internet. Most students and their families have no cell phones. The events of the day again made me cognizant of how much I want to return to this place, to make a meaningful contribution somehow.

Posted by lindaconnor 04:51 Archived in Uganda Comments (0)

West Branch of East African Rift Valley System


The gloomy skies and deluge of rain did not dampen our enthusiasm for our views of the Albertine (West Branch) of the East African Rift Valley, but they did impair our ability to document by photo! From the eastern escarpment, we could see the terraced grabens across the valley and then the rising Ruwenzori Mountains pushing up beyond them in the distance. Estimates say that 25 million years ago, this valley was formed by divergent plates moving away from one another and creating the fertile valley below, as well as the Ruwenzoris, which are fault block mountains.

The cloudy day and threatening storms minimized our time outside the jeeps, unfortunately, but did not take away from being in such a special location on Earth! How I wished for a sunny day to accentuate the distant rise of the "Mountains of the Moon" as they are known here. We had a higher elevation destination in mind, but the heavy rains were making travel on the steep dirty roads a bit treacherous so we settled for a lower point to get out and view the valley.


Our guides had arranged for a local schoolteacher, who is a subject matter expert on the area, to lecture us as we gazed upon this geological marvel. She jumped into one of our vans in a small town off the highway, and when we exited at this spot, she lectured us in the Luganda language while our guide translated. She was a captivating and mysterious vision to me, nearly blending in with the land:


Posted by lindaconnor 09:25 Archived in Uganda Comments (0)

Igara Growers Tea Factory Tour



On Wednesday, we bade farewell to our temporary Igongo Cultural Center home and headed west from Mbarara on Mbarara-Kasese Road. At Ishaka, we turned north for our tour at the Igara Growers Tea Factory. This is a processing plant which accepts the tea leaves picked by local farmers and produces approximately 3,000 tons of tea annually. Of the 5,500 farmers that harvest tea crops for this factory, nearly 4,000 of them are shareholders in the cooperative.

After removing our jewelry, donning lab coats and haircaps, and storing our cameras (to prevent any sort of contamination of the food product), we spent about an hour inside the tea plant learning all about the steps involved from shift manager, Moses Alatufa. The factory had a delightful aroma, by the way!


We observed the four steps of the process: 1) withering, a process which removes excess moisture from the tea leaves; 2) fixing, a process in which the tea leaves are tumbled through a heat system that allows the flavors to develop as the leaves turn from green to various stages of brown depending on the type of tea being produced; 3) rolling, which agitates the leaves into shapes and extracts and enhances the flavor and aroma of the tea; 4) drying, which happens by shoveling the tea leaves into an oven and then through a sifter to produce the final texture of the leaves. The final packing process involves collecting the dried tea into bins by type and then funneling them into bags for shipping. Approximately 95% of the tea processed at Igara is exported to other countries through a central store in Mombasa, Kenya. The remaining 5% of the yield is distributed to local customers.

Following our tour of the factory, we proceeded to the outside grounds where a sample of a local grower's freshly picked tea leaves was being assessed by Igara staff members. It was interesting to note that there is a desired technique to plucking the tea leaves off the tea bushes: each stem must contain three tea leaves, and must be uniform to avoid jamming in the factory's machines. Sloppy plucking, as they call it, jeopardizes the amount of money the farmer will be paid for a bag of tea leaves.


Tea is one of the top exports of Uganda, along with coffee, cotton, and fish. I had never seen a tea farm before, and they dotted the beautiful agricultural counryside. There was a small shop at the factory and we all purchased boxes of tea bags to bring home!

Posted by lindaconnor 10:48 Archived in Uganda Comments (0)

Queen Elizabeth National Park



After traveling only a couple of hours north on Mbarara-Kasese Highway, our guides stopped the vans to give us our first expansive views of Queen Elizabeth National Park. I was not prepared for the beauty of this wide open vista of breathtaking savannah. The clouds had cleared a bit to give us a glimpse of the Ruwenzori Range to the west, and the tall grasses punctuated by acacia and cactus trees in the foreground provided a glorious contrast.


As we approached the entrance to the park, our guides were quick to point out different birds and wildlife, and it was exhilarating! From left to right: Palestine Sunbird, Grey Headed Kingfisher, Vervet Monkey, Speckled Mousebird, African Elephant, Baboon.


After crossing the Katunguro Bridge, which connects QENP to the rest of Uganda, we made our way down a winding dirt road to our home for the next three nights, Bush Lodge. (Below includes several photos courtesy of NL! -- thank you!) Situated on a ridge above the Kazinga Channel, the Bush Lodge is rustic and comfy, featuring a composting indoor toilet, outdoor shower facilities for each cabin, and delicious meals served by their wonderful staff.

Just a word about those showers: note the cistern in the tree where the showerheads are located. In order to take a hot shower, guests must "order" a supply of hot water the night before at dinner. Next morning at 5am, we could hear the staff wheeling the boiling water down the gravel path in wagons, and they would climb into the trees to replenish the water in the cisterns. The temperature of the water inside would remain as hot as the outdoor temperature allowed, but cool off with the cooler nighttime temperatures. I'll admit it was a little unsettling to be showering outdoors -- and it was necessary to check and make sure no cistern-filling was in progress anywhere near our shower area before proceeding -- but it was an unexpected adventure regardless!


After a welcoming lunch, we set off in our vans -- the roofs pop up in order to afford a better view without windows in the way -- for our first late afternoon game drive. Our introduction to the QENP interior was so satisfying, but left us wanting more! From left to right: Vervet Monkey; Papyrus; Black Headed Gonolek (pay no attention to the elephant family in the background, it's the bird I was going for!); Elephant Mama and Babe; herd of female African Kob; solo Male African Kob; pair of female Lions in repose; and a serene sunset to end our beautiful first glimpse of QENP.


Posted by lindaconnor 06:30 Archived in Uganda Comments (0)

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