Wednesday, January 21, 2009

12 Hours in the Third World

We arrived at 8:30 AM, Friday the 16th of January. The airport was surprisingly modern and draped in Coke and Nokia ads and could easily be mistaken for the airport in a place like Kelowna or Winnipeg. We were met by Patrick and Faith, a delightful young Ugandan couple who work for the orphanage. We piled into a dusty Japanese mini-van, a model that one doesn't see in North America, and started on the road to Kampala. That's when it struck me; Holy Shit! I am definitely not in Kansas anymore. I'm in the f'n third world.
There are things about Uganda that are reminiscent of the developed world, things like the ubiquity of billboards and cell phones, and if you angle your head and squint you could temporarily fool yourself into thinking that you are closer to home. But when you get into a vehicle and hit the road you are violently acquainted with the truth that you are in Africa. Now keep in mind here, Its Friday at 9AM +11 hrs and I haven't had any real sleep since Wednesday AM, so I am already tripping hard on jet lag.

Surprisingly, Uganda is a vehicle culture, but all the clearly defined rules that you take for granted on first world streets are gone. Bicycles, pedestrians, motorcycles, animals, and LOTS of cars mingle freely at 100kph without any clear rules or expectations. For example, we might pass a car in front of us by passing into the oncoming traffic (honking twice to inform everyone else of our intent), only to be confronted by a oncoming truck. Instead of returning to our lane to allow the truck to pass, either the truck or our vehicle might swerve onto the far shoulder, and for a moment all three vehicles would be side by side heading in opposite directions. At the same time, any bicycles, boda bodas (motorcycle taxi's), animals, or pedestrians that were using the shoulder would need to quickly get the hell out of the way to make room. I kept expecting disaster, somehow third world road instincts make it all work.

Needless to say that my first road trip was thrilling, terrifying, and utterly real.

Our first stop was a modern supermarket, just like an African Safeway, called (and I'm not making this up) Uganda Valu. I am staying at a rooming house in a compound that the orphanage runs, and I am expected to provide most of my own meals and I had to stock the fridge. I will do an entire entry on food in the near future, but it was surprisingly easy to buy familiar stuff. I bought a stove top coffee percolator and Ugandan coffee and it's excellent. My biggest fear about leaving home is not having coffee and that is no worry here.

After a shower and lunch I decided to go for a walk. The rooming house is in a strange neighbourhood. It's a genuine third world slum, complete with shacks, garbage, animals, and lots of babies, but mixed with walled compounds and manor houses. The streets are made of hardened mud with ample garbage ground into them, but it's not odd to see a Range Rover or a Mercedes roll through, the children and the chickens scattering in its path. In this photo you can see a rather nice plantation style manor right beside a cluster of shacks and the market area that forms the center of this 'town'.

However, despite the non-intuitive mixing of classes, everyone here strongly insists that the city is perfectly safe, even at night.

Once outside the compound I was confronted with my first ethical dilemma. I must admit that I feel an initial self consciousness about pulling out my expensive, conspicuous camera and turning it on the locals. I will get more used to it, that's why I am here, but it feels strange pointing something so expensive at someone so poor.

Translated into Ugandan currency, my camera would be worth about a million shillings. I'm pretty sure that a low end wage is something in the 2000-5000 range. Is it fair for me to wave my expensive device around, taking pictures of them, and then wandering off?

I ventured around the neighbourhood, Kitunzi, in a glowing, shell shocked, jet-lagged daze, still not having slept. I asked people if I could take pictures of them and they let me.

Eventually we found a cafe and stopped for a refreshment. The sun went down and as I drank a local beer, Nile Lager, all I could think was 'Holy F**k, I really am in Africa'.


  1. Whooa! It's totally exciting to see your posts and pictures! I'm totally jealous that you are having such an experience. Try and see if you can find a rooftop and take some panoramas of the city. Oh, and bring me back a Delica Roof Rack! High roof model ;)

    love you bro!

  2. Again, wonderful Adam-pictures! So excited to finally see more. Next, bring on the food please!

    I love you Smadam.

  3. Congrats Big-Guy! If you bring back Jer-bear's Delica rack you can pack it with cool cook-wear and spices and stuff for us too!
    Just kidding. Focus on your stuff, make it good and have a wonderful adventure.

    No one is going to 'calm' this situation. ;)

  4. Adam, as an old associate who has spent much time in Southern Africa would say when you talked about the precarious passing of the vehicle TAB, That's Africa Baby!
    RE your expensive partner taking pictures of the very poor, be mindful that one of those poor might think you should part with that very expensive camera so be careful where you take it out, who's around you and when. And keep asking people before you take their. Nuff Respect. Enjoy every minute because you'll turnaround and wonder where the time went.