The Call of Mzungu
In the first of a three part series, Logan and Virginia set out to explore a 2,000km Trans-Uganda off road loop, circumnavigating this small nation in equatorial East Africa.
Here we are… back in Africa. Why? It’s a question we’ve been asked many times and by many people, including friends, family, fellow bikepackers, and many of the African people we’ve met along the way. It’s a fair question, I suppose. Traveling here is challenging, especially when going at ground level, off-road, and by bicycle. Over 25 percent of Africa’s landmass is covered in desert, while Equatorial Africa can be exquisitely hot and humid. There are dangerous animals here, menacing insects, scary viruses and parasites, and, unfortunately, regions that experience seemingly ceaseless conflict. Many Africans suffer from extreme poverty and hunger, often the result of political “mismanagement” of their country’s capital. Pedaling here can be, and often is, difficult, exhausting, and even painfully sad. So, why did we return? The short answer is that despite all its baggage, the Africa we’ve experienced can also be sublimely beautiful, joyful, and bursting with life like nowhere else we’ve ever been.
Why? The short answer is that with all its baggage, the Africa that we’ve experienced can also be sublimely beautiful, joyful, and bursting with life like nowhere else we’ve ever been.
As for our choice to cycle Uganda in particular, that’s a little less complicated. When we were in Africa back in the winter/spring of 2013/2014, we had intended to cycle from South Africa to Kenya, which would include a foray into Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda. As it turned out, time was not on our side. With plane tickets booked for Morocco and a fast approaching monsoon nipping at our heels, we left sub-Saharan Africa without ever visiting the Pearl of Africa, as Winston Churchill once called it, for the richness in resources and fertile land. Our bucket list included many treasures that this country offers such as its unique wildlife, lush tropical rainforests, lake regions, and the “mountains of the moon” that western Uganda is known for.
Of course, when most people in the US think of Uganda, a “pearl” isn’t exactly the first image that comes to mind. Uganda has a long history of violence. Uganda’s third president, Idi Amin, aka the “Butcher of Uganda,” ruled the country for eight years, until he was forcefully ousted in 1979. It’s been reported that he had so many people murdered that their corpses had to be continuously fished out of the Nile, lest they clog the intake ducts at a dam near Jinja. Amin’s barbarity left a wake of heartache that still stirs emotions today. Just a few days ago we heard a story of a nearby school where his ruthless army torched 68 people locked inside.
In 1980, Milton Obote, the president who had preceded Amin, returned to power in Uganda following a general election. Obote’s second administration was said to be at least as violent as Amin’s. In more recent years, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), under twisted leader Joseph Kony, has waged a bush war that ravaged the northern half of the country through the early 2000s, and continues to operate in the Sudan and DRC today. Over the last thirty years, Kony has kidnapped over 30,000 children, turning boys into ruthless soldiers (with initiation rights that often including massacring their own families) and young girls into their sex slaves.
For those who are unfamiliar with its geography, Uganda is approximately the size of Utah and sits directly on the equator between Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In the south lies Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa and the source of the Nile River. To the north of the country, bordering South Sudan is an arid and, at times, dangerous plain flanked by Kidepo National Park. Due east, and crossing into Kenya, is Mount Elgon, a massive 14,177’ (4,321 M) extinct volcano, surrounded by undulating hills and countless waterfalls. In the west, like a fortress wall guarding Uganda from the DRC, lies Rwenzori, the highest mountain range (with the only known glacier) in Africa, aka ‘The Mountains of The Moon’ and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Lake Albert and Lake Edward take up another part of it’s western border, and the sprawling Lake Kyoga spawns tributaries and swamps throughout center of Uganda. All in all, there 10 national parks scattered throughout the country, including the well known Murchison Falls National Park.
About 14 days ago, our plane landed in Entebe, a 30 minute drive south of Kampala on the northern bank of Lake Victoria. We loaded the bike boxes in a taxi van and zipped into traffic. Ten minutes into the ride, as the warm air coursed through our hair, loud music pierced our eardrums, and the scent of burning rubbish wafted in the wind, I turned to Gin and smiled. Once you’ve visited Africa, returning is a little like coming home. Life on the streets is fast, loud, out of control, and slightly scary. There are colors, smells, and expressions that can’t be described.
… as the warm air coursed through our hair, loud music pierced our eardrums, and the scent of burning rubbish wafted in the wind, I turned to Gin and smiled.”
This all hit hard on our first day pedaling. We left Kampala and navigated the initial ‘urban assault’ portion of our route, given to us by the Kampala Cycling Group. Within a couple of hours we were on footpaths in what seemed like remote villages. It was there where we started hearing the small and innocent calls, “Mzungu! Azungu!”—which translates to “white man, white men”. Or sometimes it was simply, “Zuuuunnnngggguuu!” from not yet fully mastered vocal chords of a tiny 3 year old. Other times it became a chant by 10 children, or even a song. Initially intoxicating, it was also somewhat sad that a couple dirty white people offer such entertainment. We’ve heard stories of mothers telling their children that it’s good luck to meet a white person. This is evident when we stand still. Crowds form. We are stared at, followed, and cheered. At one time we had some 35 children escorting us up a remote footpath hike-a-bike.
Speaking of children, they’re everywhere. Within its relatively small landmass, Uganda has a population of about 40 million, although I think they might have missed a few in the last census. It’s like kids are falling out of trees. And sometimes they actually do (see caption with photo of girl with knife above). Even in the most removed places we have cycled thus far, it’s almost impossible to find a spot where there aren’t people. The constant bustle can be good, and at times, unnerving.
Of course we wanted to travel here to experience the beauty and culture of Uganda. And that we have. Uganda is full of life, the people are some of the nicest and warmest in Africa. Fresh fruits and vegetables abound, and the Indian food is pretty damn good. The land is rich and the vistas inspiring. And, I must admit, the fact that there aren’t many tourists here make it even more appealing. Aside from the residuum left by a wave of pentecostal missionaries in the 2000s, there seems to be little impact from foreigners within backcountry Uganda. It can be tiring answering “fine”, and saying “how are you?” 300 times per day. But it is appreciated. In many other tourism influenced places in Africa, these calls might be, “give me my money!” or other phrases that can be construed as a hassle.
In fact, here we’ve heard a new one: “Well done.” There are also countless people who want to know where we are going, to shake our hands, and show us to their children. It’s not a selfish affirmation; instead, it feels like we are telling these people that their corner of the world matters, and there are people who want to visit these Ugandan backwaters.
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