Murchison Falls, Masaka, Matugga, Kampala: Memoirs of a Mzungu

Call me Mucunguzi. Now that I have found myself back in stable WiFi, I now wish to share with you my latter week in Africa, which I spent wandering around Uganda in a true mzungu style. My first stop brought me about four hours north to a natural reserve known as Murchison Falls.

Picasso: “Safari in sorrow” circa 2019, oil on canvas

This is one of ten major parks in Uganda where people will trek to find unfathomable landscapes and beautiful wildlife. I had the pleasure of taking a three day safari with Watalii Safaris, a small and newer company based out of Kampala. With no other tourists looking for a Murchison safari on those days, so I was the only one in the truck, along with Mark (a manager of Watalii Safaris) and Sula (the driver).

The guhls!

A personal safari… not too bad! But I was quite terrified, as I had negotiated a student discount with the company, so they explained all accommodation and food would be “budget” (I had been imagining the entire week leading up: “what is budget food?”) But this experience proved to anything less than budget! These guys hooked me. We stopped maybe four times on the car drive north at different markets and food stands, where Mark bought me chapattis, jackfruit, roasted corn, and other street food delights.

Sula and me, feat. pineapple (eaten like corn on a cob!)

We also stopped along various restaurants on our northern trek, where we consumed some fresh avocado, amazing lamb muchomo (BBQ lamb) and chapatti (of course).

I love matoke, beef stew, and avocado

I was charmed. Later afternoon, we arrived at our “budget accommodation” which was called Red Chili. Sula, our driver, claimed this place to be his “second home:” he knew everyone that worked there and they all seemed to treat me with special services because of it. I assessed my fate as we passed all these low hanging tents and huts, but eventually the grounds manager brought Mark and me to a cabin with the title “Segal” How opulent, #se-guhls!

Best chapatti wrap of my life? at Red Chili Safari grounds

Things were not as budget, as I had predicted after all. Red Chili was nestled over a great valley outlook, and the grounds were filled with friendly travelers from all corners of the globe. One traveler, named Helen, shared a drink with me and told me of her life growing up in Kampala, facing the loss of her parents in her teenage years, and eventual exile to England when she was 21 years old. I find it’s places of great turn-over that people tend to open up surprising amounts, and I was happy to listen to all the lives that were willing to share.

Chillin’ with Helen

Before the sun found its rest, Sula brought Mark and me to Murchison Falls, which is the most powerful waterfall in all of Uganda. I tell you, I looked at it for about thirty minutes straight… it was mesmerizing.

~Fall~ing in love with Africa

Essentially, the wide and fast Nile is pushed into a 7 meter pass which causes intense water pressure and results in this unstoppable natural fall. According to Sula, local people use to bring goats to the falls as divine sacrifice. I find this element of “nature religions” to be so interesting, in order to express gratitude or ask for something, valuable commodities, like a healthy goat, would be given to the fall, almost as if to feed the earth deity. Excluding the ethical issues with destroying the life of goat, I think the implication of respecting and giving back to the power of nature is something from which many text-based religious cultures, such as Christianity, Judaism, etc. could learn. When there are less systems or rituals to condition someone into witnessing the power of the natural world, the more one can justify the destruction of the earth. As the world’s powerful countries continue to wake up to the abundance of resources in Africa, places like Murchison Falls have been threatened with dams and other manufacturing to harness its natural power and as a result destroy its natural beauty. Fortunately, local Ugandans have greatly resisted these political pushes, and we can hope that Murchison will continue to spit its falls for many more visitors to experience.

I analyzed my time on the safari as a witnessing of natural power. There is so much superhuman force in the world: the falling river, the charging elephant, even the elegant giraffe as she longingly lifts her head. I was in my zone for this three day stretch–communing with the giraffes, families of elephants, and occasional lions. I will never forget these feelings.

Seeing as I was the only member on my private safari and Mark, the Watalii manager, lived within my cabin (#se-guhls4lyfe), I got to know his special soul on a deep level. He explained to me his background as an orphan from a very young age. With HIV/AIDS hitting Africa in epidemic proportions in the 1980, many Ugandans in my generation and a few decades older became orphans or grew up in a single-parent household. For this reason, there are various NGO (non-governmental organizations) and programs that exist to provide accommodation, education, and hope for such children. Mark, after hearing my life-long interest for religious music, opened up to me about Watoto Church, which is a Protestant church in East Africa that is famous for the Watoto Children’s Choir. This choral program takes in orphans and, along with providing them living, learning and worship spaces, teaches them songs and dances. These children’s choirs go on tours around the world, presenting their music to raise awareness and funds for the cause. The tours also serve as a platform for children to grow as leaders and witness different parts of the world, as Mark explained that many such children do not have the scope to see beyond their desolation. As a young adult, Mark worked with Watoto for six year, leading the groups of children to various corners of the world and providing musical support for the choir on stage. Mark and I even swapped a few religious songs, and we sang them together throughout the long stretches of savanna.

Watoto Church stage, before the Sunday service. Rock on!

The Sunday following the safari, Mark was kind enough to bring me to Watoto Church Downtown in Kampala and show me the upbeat worship from his faith background. I had never been to a church like this (and secretly I was so into it). It was essentially a rock concert with an uplifting message and a sermon at the end, and I was whippin’ my hair back and forth for the Lord. Nonetheless, it was interesting to see the intensity of the Kampalan faith expressed through the very stimulating atmosphere of Watoto.

After getting changed out of our Sunday Best, Mark took to meet Michael, the other owner of Watalii Safaris. Michael and his wife we kind enough to prepare a full dinner featuring some of my Ugandan faves: matoke, sausage, katogo. The night ended with mandazi (fried, sweet dough balls) and dawa tea. “Dawa” comes from Swahili, meaning medicine, and darlings it tasted like it: ginder, lemon, green tea, honey. It took me many minutes and many beads of sweat to finish it, but apparently my drinking it was my tribal initiation, as Michael gave me my African name: Mucunguzi (Champion).

Later that week, I joined my host brother, Syrus, to visit his friend Sydney’s village, Masaka. This village in the Buganda region has some sections of relatively high development, but we went straight into the banana plantation to the small cluster of about forty homes where Sydney grew up. We walked the entire town and got to see some of Sydney’s old neighbors, the vast majority of them farming, drying coffee beans, or gathering water from the bore hole.

Matoke Time!

We even got to pass a man who was preparing bark cloth, which is a fabric made from dried and pressed bark that is often worn by royalty. This man, who spoke no English, explained to Syrus and Sydney how he uses a sharp reed to remove a layer of bark off of the tree, then this section of bark is flattened and dried, which makes it triple in surface area.

Masaka local in the first steps of making barkcloth

Finding rest in Sydney’s humble house, I was greeted by his mother and auntie. Both of them went to their knees and bowed to me, which I was quite shocked to experience. Apparently in more rural sections of Uganda, such gender dynamics exist. As the boys and I sat in the living area, the women were all preparing matoke and tea, which they later served to us on their knees. I was greatly humbled by the generosity of these people: they fed and treated me like royalty, though they have very little themselves. I was taught the phrase “Gyebaleko Nyabo!” (meaning “good work, ma’am!”), as a polite response to well prepared food. I left the village feeling full of mashed banana and appreciation for this experience. And as a cherry on the top, we stopped at the equator line to take a few pics.

Friends in both hemispheres!

On my last days of Kampalan existence, I spent some time roaming the arts and music departments of Makerere University with a Baha’i artist, Ezra. By chance, we ran into his old arts professors, who turned out to be one of the designers of the Shilling Bank note!

Later that evening, I was delighted with a songfest at Jjajja’s compound. Many Baha’is and Baha’i friends came to the compound, prepared with a song to sing. I got to hear many of the various Baha’i community songs (accompanied with djembe), Ugandan folk songs, original solo works. I was asked to sing some of my repertoire, and I found myself cracking up at how much the mood in the room shifted, as I started singing “Flow my tears,” or a heart-break ballad from an Italian operetta. I find great value in the uplifting spirit of African music, especially when juxtaposed to the often somber undertones of Western Art Music. Nonetheless, this was a wonderful community event of many, diverse sounds, and we ended the night with Uncle Wes singing the Lord’s Prayer. Sublime.

The last day, I found myself on the back of a 30-minute bodaboda drive to a suburb called Matugga. This was the town where a Baha’i choir singer and composer, Teddy, lives and works. She showed me around the private primary school at which she instructs music, dance, and drama. Eventually, she brought me to her class space, where about 40 of her student performed “You raise me up” and “Hallelujah” both fully choreographed. I was secretly crying as I filmed it. It was so powerful to see these children expressing themselves to these inspired songs. It was wonderful to get to experience more of Teddy’s spirit, as I will be in closer contact with her as I write my thesis on her music.

Starting positions for “You raise me up!”

Never stop singing, kiddos!

Teddy helping me board a bodaboda going home

And then I was gone. One last time, stuffed into the back seat of Syrus’ car, as four members of my host family came to see me off to the airport. Somewhat stressed and sweaty, I lugged my bags past a troupe of African dancers that welcomed recent arrivals into the dusty Ugandan atmosphere. And it will be these sounds and sights that will remain with me forever in my memory of Uganda: everyone smiling, shaking their body, and the drum never stopping.

Goodbye Uganda!