Fireside Chats

Today’s treat was taking out a dugout canoe and paddling along the shore, watching birds and local fishermen doing their thing. This lake truly is beautiful with all the islands and the beautifully-tiered landscapes and I encourage all of you to add seeing this lake to your bucket list. We went around the corner of our little peninsula and the wind picked up just a tiny bit. There were two local men tucked into the reeds along the shore and they called out a greeting of welcome and asked us where we were going. Just paddling around for leisure seemed like a strange answer, albeit true, because they only go with a purpose. They said they were hiding there until the storm passed. We looked around. Is there something they know that we don’t? The water was still pretty calm. After chatting with us for only a minute and my failed attempts to use some Luganda that might translate into something familiar to them, they backed up their canoe and took off again, one of them calling back, “We are now continuing our journey so you can go now too.” By the time we had our 17-foot eucalyptus tree turned around, they were already almost out of sight.

The boys at the OM Hostel have been taking good care of us. They named this place ‘OM’ because 85% of the words spoken in the local language start with the letters ”OM” which I think is pretty interesting. The local people and the young men who work here are from the Chiga tribe, the fourth largest tribe in Uganda and considered the strongest physically because of the steep environment in which they live and farm. They certainly have some interesting traditions in this male dominated culture…especially in the area of marriage and marital roles. The men still have to pay a bride price (common throughout Uganda) in cattle and that price goes up if the woman is educated or has a business. The price goes WAY down if it’s proven that the woman is not a virgin or pregnant by someone else. Remember Punishment Island from yesterday’s post? Yeah, they take it pretty seriously. It used to be a cultural norm that when a man married a woman, she was actually ‘for’ the whole family, so if a man’s brother wanted to sleep with her, he would just go to their house and leave his spear by the door (the symbolic tie on the doorknob). The man would come home from working on the fields to find his brother’s spear in the doorway and he would have to just come back later. Because of AIDS and STDs, they stopped this practice. Really?! That’s the only reason? One thing that makes the Chiga tribe distinguishable from all the other tribes in Uganda is that they are the only ones who do not have a king. Although it might seem dated because Uganda has also has a president, all other tribes still have a king even today. I asked Neville why the Chiga don’t have one and it’s because they believe that all men are created equal. I like that part, but too bad it doesn’t include women.

Something we have really noticed all over the country is the lack of laws and rules around anything related to safety. Everyone rides boda bodas without helmets, including the babies strapped to their mom’s backs. I have seen the rare boda driver with a helmet but it’s never strapped and John’s probably right when he says they wear them only so the visors keep out the bugs and dust. The only bike helmets we have seen were the professional cyclists we saw at the beginning of the trip. There are really no traffic laws to speak of. The only speed limit signs we have seen are around road construction and bigger towns and everyone drives at the highest speed they can manage without taking out their oil pans on the stupid speed bumps. Everyone, including us, just takes the path of least resistance and we are getting pretty confident at navigating the roundabouts and chaos of the towns we ride through. John even mentioned that he was happy they drive on the other side of the road because his accident effected his ability to turn his head to the left, but shoulder checking his right side is A-OK.

We spent quite awhile last night talking to Neville, the main host here right now, and another guest from South Africa. From Neville we learned a lot about the Chiga culture and a little bit about how the justice system works. He was speaking from experience when he told us that typically, if a crime happens, the police go to the bars and wait until closing time and just start gathering up a big group of men and then “do the research” in the morning and let people go as they are deemed innocent. He said if you pay a little bribe or if you’re fast enough, the police “might just slap you, hit you, or kick you” but then if you run away, they usually just let you go. They don’t typically shoot their AK-47’s, Neville says, unless there is an uprising. He was acting out the whole scene with grand gestures and flashing his smile at what he’s gotten away with. He was then careful to assure us, with a serious face, that he has never been arrested although he’s spent many nights in jail.

Our new ‘friend’ from South Africa sadly had a rude awakening to Uganda. He says that Africans typically don’t travel and if they do, it’s never within their own continent, so he wanted to tour Rwanda and Uganda for the first time on his two-week vacation. He came on a tour bus from Kigali, Rwanda but fell asleep and missed his stop. He got all the way to the next town (that we had biked from to get here) before they woke him up and literally kicked him off the bus. He doesn’t speak the language but he said because he’s black, they expected him to know what was happening. Well, he had no other choice but to take a mutatu (the cheaper taxi vans that cram as many passengers in as possible and usually have all kinds of crazy things strapped to the top or hanging out the back with precarious tie-downs) to Kabale, the town where the hellish dirt road starts that goes straight up and over to the lake. From Kabale, he had to take a boda boda, terribly worried about keeping all of his luggage intact on his lap while his driver navigated the bumps and hills. He made it to the main landing at the lake only to find that he had to now paddle a dug-out canoe for an hour over to the hostel. He walked up the four flights of steep stairs to the sitting area, huffing and puffing, and immediately ordered a beer. Seems we were not the only ones to have a hard time getting here. We talked politics, history, and about our trip. He was very relieved to hear about our positive experiences in Uganda and with the people. He had such a bad experience getting here and has also noticed the initially-stern looks from the people. We encouraged him to smile and wave and he would then be considered a friend. He spent the entire day in Kabale and came back while we were hanging out at the campfire (with Neville and Bosco) to tell us that we were right. He had wrongly judged the entire culture based on his experience with one or two rude people yesterday and humbly admitted that he had learned a valuable lesson.