Uganda Early Fall 2008: "You just have to smile and suffer in silence", Precious, a young early 20s University Engineer student informed me as our massively overloaded bus bumped and careened along the dusty stretch of Ugandan highway. I had made what I knew to be a quixotic and hopelessly naive comment, saying that it seemed people would ultimately rebel against services that treated their customers so shabbily. We were hurtling towards Bwindi, home of the famous National Park where approximately half the world's remaining mountain gorillas live. The reason for then need to suffer in silence was due to the approximately 5 people on board for every 3 seats. People were standing in the aisle, or correction, standing on top of their luggage which was piled in the aisle, hanging over the driver and smashed into the exit stairwells of the bus. I was sitting in what was supposed to be the most coveted seat onboard, the one right in front with plenty of legroom as only the bus engine compartment was toward the front and below where I was sitting. However, my coveted seat ended up being surrounded by a crush of bodies all crammed together behind the driver and all around the engine well, from which burning smoke came out due to the oil and water leaking from the engine. The smoke combined with the dust swirling through the stifling cabin, and with noxious odors of sweat, BO and god knows what else, so that the place stank. As I found to be the usual in Uganda with public transportation, including taxis, the bus broke down and needed fixing en route. As Precious further intoned, the general population of her country just did not know any better, and perhaps in ignorance, just accepted such shabby service as what was to be expected. Although not all that unusual for public transport in the poorer world, it nevertheless struck me as it always does in these types of situations, how dehumanizing and degrading egregious poverty is to each individual's personal dignity.
Getting onto the bus eight hours earlier at daybreak provided a sobering show. As passengers come to the bus yard to find the bus going to their particular destinations, "brokers" (guys that hang around in the bus lot) glom onto you, prodding and sometimes lightly shoving you in this direction and that towards a bus of their choice, hoping to get a commission for "referring" you, the passenger, to the correct bus for your destination. Being familiar with this game, I purposely strode directly towards the first bus that had a driver visible standing outside it, and asked him which bus I needed to take for the 8 to 12 hour ride to Bwindi. After he pointed it out, I shirked off the pesky brokers and proceeded to slog my way through the dusty field, weaving around the masses of yelling and dirty humanity, till I got to my bus. Once on the bus, I watched the drama below. In the span of the hour or so I waited while the bus filled before departure, I saw several instances of fighting breaking out between brokers arguing over some hapless customer that didn't want anything to do with any of the brokers. Usually the fight consisted of a few shoves, and maybe a punch or two amongst rather sorry, dirty, scrawny and desperate looking men hoping to get a few scraps of money for their mostly unneeded and unwanted efforts. It was pathetic and comical at the same time.
One can travel Uganda, as in much of Africa, completely removed from the day to day dealings with the common people. That is what happens when one spends $10K for a 2 week safari. You get picked up from the airport by a nice looking and well-dressed young man, led through the heaving humanity waiting outside customs, to an awaiting comfortable late model 4 X 4. You then cruise in air conditioned comfort past the slums and over the bumpy crater pocked roads to your oasis of the 1rst world, a Sheraton, Hyatt or Serena Hotel. Safely ensconced therein, and sealed off from the reality outside, you dine on sumptuous meals with fine imported wines and cognac accompanying your repast. The next day upon leaving your oasis of the rich world amongst the chaos and poverty, you breeze along again in air conditioned comfort through the countryside to your game park, where another oasis of the far away rich modern world awaits you. You then go home and tell all your friends how wonderful and exotic Africa was as you put them asleep with picture after picture of lions, buffaloes, zebras, rhinos, elephants and so on.
Or, you can do it in a more independent mode, and if alone, will probably have to avail yourself of public transport as I often do. Transport, such as hiring out your own SUV and driver, can be very expensive in much of Africa (Americans squawk and make a big political issue about the price of gasoline over $4 a gallon, but should consider the fact that in the poorest of the poor areas of the world as in much of Africa, people must pay prices at this time of upwards of $6 to $10 per gallon of petrol). The benefit of putting up with it all and suffering in silence, is that you see, experience, meet people and learn a whole lot more about the society and situation around you. And you then only need to spend perhaps 2 or 3K to do the same safari and get all those great pictures with which to put people back home to sleep.
My first stop in Uganda after passing 5 days in its capital of Kampala was the picturesque and biologically highly diverse area near the borders Uganda shares with Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This is where the highland forest of Bwindi National Park is located. Formerly the home of traditional forest dwelling pygmies, all the former inhabitants have been removed from the park area to be resettled into villages in the surrounding area and given the tools to make a new type of life without having to exploit the forest. Uganda as a country has great incentive to do such a thing, and to protect Bwindi and its famous 340 or so Mountain Gorilla population. Bwindi's gorillas are one of Africa's tourist industry crown jewels, perhaps the number one draw for tourists on the continent. Plus, as several expats living in Uganda mentioned to me, it is probably the main reason why Uganda even has a tourist industry. This is the draw that brings people to this country who then go on to visit and experience other things the country offers, such as excellent chimpanzee and other primate viewing in parks to the north of Bwindi and the famous game reserve of Victoria National Park.
There are 3 gorilla groups in Bwindi that are habituated to people, with a fourth one currently undergoing the extended process of habituation. A gorilla group is like a family with a family head, the dominant male called the Alpha Male, and a number of females that are his mates, and the offspring that result. The groups can range in size. The smallest habituated one in Bwindi during my visit was 8 gorillas and the largest habituated group was I believe around 17 gorillas.
The process of getting a group of gorillas accustomed to people is a long and patient process, taking up to 3 years. The park rangers working in teams and always wearing their customary green park uniforms, approach a gorilla group on a regular basis for an extended period of time. At first, they are greeted with hostility by the gorillas, which involves a lot of aggressive noise making and threatening postures from the gorilla's, usually followed by a wary retreat away from the rangers. After a fairly long period of time of continual visits where the rangers just view the gorillas passively, the gorillas become accustomed to the ranger's presence and become indifferent to them. With more time the gorillas begin to acknowledge the rangers. And after a prolonged time, the gorilla group may even seek the rangers' aid in protection from rival Alpha Males, who seek to poach a female from the group. The threatened gorilla group, when their Alpha Male feels he cannot win a fight with the aggressing Alpha Male, have been known to "hide" behind the rangers for protection until the threatening Alpha Male goes away.
The gorillas at Bwindi don't disappoint. Viewing them is a lot of fun. Starting in the morning tourists in groups no larger than 8, will accompany a ranger guide into the forest in search of one of the habituated gorilla groups. Earlier that same morning, ranger acting as scouts will have set out and begun tracking the gorilla group, picking up the group's trail from where they last saw them the night before. Although finding the gorilla group is not guaranteed, the scouts usually are successful. Upon finding the group, they radio the guide ranger the location of the gorillas, and the guide ranger brings his group of tourists to that location (which may move of course as the gorillas move on). On my gorilla viewing trek, we caught up with our group of gorillas, a small "family" of 8, after about 2 hours of tracking. We then watched at close range as the gorillas lounged about in the bush, lazily munching on leaves, while one of the female mothers played with her baby. The gorilla group moved around a bit over a short range, but was indifferent to our presence. For a tourist group, the time for viewing the gorillas is strictly limited to one hour after initial contact, and you are required to always maintain a distance of 21 feet (7 meters) or more from any of the gorillas, to limit chances of exposing them to human illnesses for which they may be incapable of tolerating. (a tourist that is sick, or displays any sign of communicable illness, is not allowed to go on the trek at all).
Near the end of our viewing time, a small drama occurred when a maturing male in the group made advances towards one of the females. This brought a very rapid and aggressive response from the Alpha Male, who charged the offending adolescent menacingly, almost running over us tourists in the process. Knowing he was in trouble, the offending adolescent male made a beeline in the opposite direction of the angry Alpha Male and managed to get away unharmed. The Alpha Male then calmed down and came over towards us, walking right up to one of the male tourists in our group and began to rub his hand over the tourist's balding head. Upon making a motion for the camera the tourist's camera, our guide pushed the camera out of the gorilla's inquiring hand and gently shooed him away. During this episode, our guide had warned us all to stand perfectly still, even as the Alpha Male made his charge at the offending adolescent. He did not want us to attract aggressive attention from the angry Alpha Male towards ourselves. We were instructed to continue to stand very still and not react, nor show fear, while the gorilla approached us which is why we were all in much closer proximity then the usual 21 foot rule allows.
After the big gorilla viewing day, I spent a couple more days in the Bwindi area, visiting the nearby villages as well as having a guide take me to the home of a local medicine man. The most interesting part of my time in the area was a visit to the Bwindi Community Hospital. This much needed hospital was started by a US missionary couple in 2003, who were in the area working with the Batwa Pygmies, the local forest people who had been displaced from their surrounding forest homes in 1991 when Bwindi became a National Park. The hospital provides a number of essential health services and outreach programs to hundreds of thousands of people in the surrounding hillside communities, many of whom are hours away by vehicle or days away by foot via forest trails. The hospital is funded by donations and an active and ongoing fundraising effort, with some large funding coming from a family in Nevada as well as other families in California. Much of the work the hospital does is basic: providing modern maternity services in conjunction with the traditional midwives in the communities, dental and eye services, AIDS prevention education and treatment for the HIV positive. Another important aspect of the hospital's service is treatment to children suffering from malnutrition, a very common problem in the area, and an ongoing education effort to the parents of such children on how to provide better and more balanced nutritional diets to their children. This last service includes teaching people how to create and tend micro gardens around their huts, where they can grow various vegetables and fruits needed by children to supplement their mostly starch laden diets of white rice, cassava and potatoes.