Cycling North Uganda
We left the tar and took a dirt road leading north, towards Matany. We didn’t know what to expect with the rainy season. We got stuck in the mud many times in Kenya and wanted to avoid that. But the dirt roads are where the adventure lies, and we like to follow the adventure.
It turns out, dirt roads in Uganda are pretty good. It rained a lot! But even in the rain, we could still cycle on the red soil that was well-graded without our bicycles sinking like a ship.
Once we left the hustle and bustle of the bigger towns and Sipi Falls, we could see how much nature Uganda has. Green plains stretch far into the distance, broken up only by mountains jutting out of the otherwise flat ground. We cycled through Pian Upe Game Reserve, although we didn’t see any animals. Unlike in Kenya, we didn’t pass a single elephant, giraffe, zebra or antelope. From time to time, we would also see the smoke from people making coal deep in the forests. Are there even many animals left in Uganda?
There must be at least antelope around because we passed hunter gatherers – yes, legit hunter gatherers. They had a bow and arrow, were wearing ‘traditional’ clothes and jewellery, and were carrying half a buck. Most of the tribal people we passed here wore brightly coloured blankets draped over their shoulders and covering their important parts. The men are the ones who wear the exquisite jewellery here. Some men wear large disks in their ears that resemble the look hipsters are going for.
But it was not always this way. We were later told, “actually, if you cycled here 50 years ago, everyone would be naked.” If the weather is too hot, what are clothes practically good for anyway? According to a local, Idi Amin’s brutal regime forced the tribe here to cover up. They improvised quickly with blankets.
In fact, we did pass a lot of naked kids… especially at the rivers, where we had to cycle carefully across and hope we didn’t fall in. There were many, many thatched hut villages that we later found out were ‘mobile villages’. These huts are made completely out of natural materials such as mud, sticks and grass. Traditionally, people move their communities around, reaping the rewards of the land. When the land grows hostile and dry, they move again… taking their cattle, families and roofs with them (thatch roofs are a lot of work). There was also no rubbish around – no plastic bottles, no plastic bags… just nature and natural materials used for building. It was refreshing to see.
Before we reached Matany Hospital, we camped at a police station for the night. I don’t think these guys have much work to do in such a sleepy village. But there was always a man concentrating hard at the ‘police desk’ with his record book, which we signed as guests. They were very nice and allowed us to camp for the night. The policeman’s young girl was adorable and so interested in us but too shy to say much.
Volunteering at Matany Hospital
For the next week, we volunteered at Matany Hospital, a hospital funded by the Comboni Missionary in 1968. Today, private donations along with help from the Ugandan Government help to fund it. The hospital is a lifeline to the people who need it here – this is one of the poorest regions in Uganda.
While waiting at the entrance to the hospital, a young women called Caroline came over to say hello. She came for a test at the hospital and is doing university studies through correspondence. Even though I was sweaty, dirty and probably smelt like the plague, she had no issues with coming to sit next to me with a bright smile to chat. She called over some of her friends and we were chatting and sharing stories for a bit. That’s what I love about Africa – people don’t judge.
Soon we met brother Gunther, who runs the hospital. He is from Germany but has been living here for decades. He says he couldn’t see himself living anywhere else but here. He gave us a room at their guest accommodation. Breakfast, lunch and dinner was prepared for us (heaven!) with vegetables from their organic garden.
But they clearly underestimated the amount of food cycle tourists consume and we nearly ate the whole buffet between the two of us on the first night. There were also three Italian medical volunteers who were working in the hospital for a few months, and we got a lot of insight about hospital life from them.
We were given a tour around the hospital. At one point we were outside the TB ward when I asked a question about why some TB patients are separated. After telling us it is because the “highly contagious” people should not infect the weaker patients, he said, “Come in, I’ll show you.” We politely went inside. Even though the beds were empty on this side, there was a massive opening connecting the other TB room and its patients. While we held our breath he explained about how the most sick patients come to this room… “hmmmm”, I said with a closed mouth. The cleaning lady mopping the floor was wearing a mask, not a good sign for us! It was a good insight into the hospital, though.
Then we had to ask ourselves, what on Earth could we do here? We weren’t trained in any kind of medicine. We were probably going to be demolished to the veg garden (which I actually would have enjoyed). Instead we proposed to redesign their website, make it mobile friendly, fill it with pictures that we can take and work on some of the content. We thought we would be faster but it was a full week of work… which we’re not complaining about because we were treated like kings!
On an afternoon off, we were taken to one of the mobile hut villages where we were shown around the different huts. Each circular fence surrounds one family… and by one family they mean one man and his five wives, in this particular case. The wives have many children… ten children per wife is not uncommon (that’s like spending your life pregnant?!). But this is how wealth is measured in many communities, along with their number of cows. Some of the villages are so remote that midwives go out to the middle of nowhere, sometimes in the middle of the night, in the 4×4 ambulance or a motorbike taxi to help women give birth.
Continuing with our tour of the village, the children followed us around the huts as they explained the tools and instruments they use for cooking and carrying water. As suggested, we bought sweets for the kids but at the end of the tour the adults were demanding money. Our guide explained that we were helping the hospital and that the hospital helps their community, which they eventually accepted.
Spending this week at Matany was a fascinating insight. We enjoyed sharing stories with the other volunteers, our visits in the community and enjoying the company of the hard working staff at Matany Hospital.
After saying goodbye, we cycled down to Jinja through many small villages and towns. It seems Ugandans are given their own plot of land to build a house and also farm crops. Simon was usually ahead of me and after seeing him, all the kids, teenagers and some adults would stop what they were doing and line the small, sandy streets. By the time I cycled by, there would be a welcome parade of hands waving, kids screaming, and the biggest smiles you have ever seen.
I’ve already mentioned this, but Ugandan kids are seriously, THE best. When small Ugandan kids see us, they are so excited that they don’t know what to do with their joy. They hold their heads, jump up and down and/or run around in circles. This is usually accompanied with mad-like screams while shouting mzuuunguuuu (foreign person) while half ecstatic and half crying. I even saw one puke, though that might have nothing to do with us.
I found one kid crying his eyes out on the road and saying mzungu… I think he was completely upset that Simon didn’t wave back to him (tut tut). Either that, or Simon’s foreign white legs scared the living daylights out of him (not the first time)! A lady taught her daughter – who was just learning to stand on her two feet – how to wave and say hello to a mzungu. Important life lessons they learn from young. She did well.
Groups of kids would sometimes burst into their own made-up song with the word mzungu stuck in there somewhere.. “Jambo, mzungu”.. clap, clap.. “Jambo, mzungu” clap, clap. Many times they say “byeeee” instead of hello… literally pronouncing the “e”. I now say, “byeeeee” too. But in the end it doesn’t matter what they say, because they say it with love. It always makes our day and we can’t help but laugh every time it happens. They recharge our batteries. So, to the kids of Uganda – you are AWESOME! With love, two of your mzungus.