Kathleen tells...


The pearl of Africa


Uganda is called the 'Pearl of Africa', a name that has lasted for more than 100 years. The explorer Stanley called the country like this. Churchill used it as the title for his autobiography of his time in Africa. And we can confirm this. Uganda is a pearl. No lack of versatility, no lack of beauty. Uganda is said to be the whole of Africa in one country. There's something true in that. We cycle along the 'coast' of Lake Victoria, surrender a few days to the bustle and cultural life in Kampala, then cycle between banana and coffee plantations on the misty flanks of Mount Elgon towards Karamoja, the northeastern part of the country. There we are surrounded by high grasses on vast savannahs, with here and there a rugged single mountain at the horizon. Soon we'll drive towards the southwest of Uganda, where crater lakes and mountainous jungles, inhabited by chimpanzees and mountain gorillas await us.


Uganda has 56 tribes. One day we see men with a kind of Tyrolean hats including feather on their heads walking along the road. Around their necks a flashy Gothic cross and a red checkered wrap around their loins. The other day we are greeted by men of a clearly different tribe: leather cap on the head, long staff in hand. They dice in the shade in front of their mud house. The facade is decorated with geometric figures in dark earth colours. Next to it is a round hut with a thatched pointed roof and a solar panel on top.

Potential is not lacking in this country, if we may believe the inscriptions along school, police building, government office. White signs painted in large letters show the mission and vision of the institute in question. "in the service of the community. "Hard work leads to success. "For a glorious future. Everywhere they talk in terms of hope and improvement. Most of the signs are half rusted, the paint has flaked off. 


Whatever the future may hold, the average Ugandan doesn’t care.  Because we have the impression that most people don't look any further than today. Sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of habit. That has a lot to do with poverty, but perhaps even more with unpredictability. Many young people do not finish school because it is a long-term investment and there are now other needs, such as extra help on the land. But also in the smaller daily things we notice that plans, if any, are constantly being adjusted. The planned dinner for the hotel guests is postponed to an indefinite time because there is an unexpected football match on the square next to the hotel. An excellent opportunity to experience that. Dinner can wait. So can those two hungry western cyclists who just arrived.

For us all this unpredictability is often a tough challenge. We are hard learners in that area. As Westerners we are used to use our desire as a guideline and we can only relax when it is fulfilled. That sometimes creates funny situations. After a long hard cycling day, overheated, tired, sweaty and under the red dust of the dirt roads, we think we are entitled to a refreshing shower... What turns out? No water. Ah, that lack of water is very common,' says the young hotel owner. First it has to be pumped up. After an hour there is indeed a paltry jet of water coming out of the shower head. But just when Paul has completely soaped himself, the jet turns into a few drops and then into nothing more. Not for the rest of the evening. But tomorrow there will be water coming out again, we are assured.


Cycling on dirt roads remains such an unpredictable adventure as well. We can decide to cycle along a beautiful route. From one moment to the next we have to adjust our idea because a cloudburst turns it into a pool of mud, or because halfway down the road a truck is stuck in the mud and blocks the whole road, or because the river has flooded and literally turned the road into a pond. Several times it has also happened that the meals we are served don't satisfy our hunger, that we make an extra order and that we can't because there is no food left in the kitchen. And when we want to cycle through Kampala 'for a while', it turns out to be an impossible job because the traffic is completely blocked. With all this unpredictability we often find ourselves restless, or frustrated, or languishing in self-pity.

The Ugandans all seem to stay very quiet underneath.  Their desire seems to conform more to what the situation allows at the moment, than the other way around. They are heroes in (self)relativation, it seems. So when we're stuck in that centre of Kampala with our bicycles and are first worried and eagerly looking for a way out, the motorcyclist who is forced to lean with his vehicle against my bags has a chat with me. where are you from? How are you doing? Funny hey, this traffic. 

From our desire to get through the city, we only look at the surroundings with eyes that are linked to exits. The motorcyclist first looks around and makes room for possible opportunities based on what he sees. In a chat with a blond beauty on a bicycle who unexpectedly turns up next to him for example 😊. That relaxed way of dealing with what the day brings also makes Uganda a beautiful country. Also for that reason it deserves its title as a pearl. Because depending on how you hold him up to the light, other shades of reality, other possibilities, other perspectives appear.


I practice my physical and mental elasticity along the way on my bike, bumping into windblown dust on the dirt roads, between the deep trenches that the rain of recent months has dug into the roads. I make my back as elastic as possible and move my body along with the strange jumps that my wheels make, to minimize the chance of breaking my back. In other words, by the way of the least resistance. That's starting to work out quite well in the meantime. My mental flexibility may grow a bit. Let the Ugandans be my masters in this.