A Ugandan Village

We spent our mornings in Bohoma trekking for Gorillas and our afternoons visiting the village and its surroundings. We were discouraged from setting out on our own by our hosts at the lodge and thus we had not only a guide but an armed guard accompany us on our afternoons. When we asked the reasoning for the guard, we were told he was there to keep the village children from overwhelming us. With an AK-47. That answer didn’t make us feel any safer as we couldn’t help but think that we didn’t need protecting from these young people.


It was difficult to get to the bottom of this. We were told over and over that the village was safe, no one would try to hurt us but then we were not allowed to leave the lodge without the guard. Puzzling.

In the village, cattle


share the space with people


and tiny shops are set up along the one dirt road. Signs advertising accommodations were plentiful. It seemed to us that there were more “lodges” than tourists, in fact the only other foreigners we ran into were those on our Gorilla treks.

Our guide took us to visit a “Pygmy village” in the forest.


It’s not real though but only a reenactment of what one used to be.


The Pygmy people used to live on the mountain, harvesting its resources, grazing their cattle and burning down patches of land to cultivate on. Once the area was designated protected for indigenous species, the Pygmy, and their livestock, were kicked out and forbidden to enter their ancestral lands. We were told by our guide that the government gave the Pygmy people plots of land to cultivate and that it provides them with a small stipend to make up for their loss. Judging from the terrible poverty they obviously live in, it didn’t ring true.


In this pretend village, the Pygmy showed us how they built tree houses where the children would be kept while the adults went hunting. One adult, armed with a bow and arrow, would stay behind to protect the children from harm.


The Pygmy people danced their traditional dance for us


and showed us how they make fire by rubbing sticks.


We were shown their tiny houses


and even the “love hut” where newlyweds would stay for a month once married before integrating into the community. We were later told by fellow travelers that we got the sanitized version of the tour, maybe due to the boys being with us, while they got the fully violent “newlywed reenactment”. From their description, we don’t think we missed anything worth complaining about.

Back in the village, people paid us no mind as they went about their day. Makeshift broilers roast snacks for sale outside homes (our guide strongly advised us not to sample them)


and children, on their way home from school, play futbol (soccer for y’all) with a coconut ball.


The mountains in the area are covered by fields of tea plants.


Tea production is what keeps this area afloat. While there are some coffee trees around


and coffee is Uganda’s primary crop export, our guide explained that it is not as immediately economically profitable as tea. Coffee trees take a few years to yield coffee beans and once harvested are done for; while tea just keeps on growing requiring very little care in these wet and high plains. Everywhere we looked, tea shrubs abounded.


The branches with three leaves on them are harvested by hand before they get too old and brought to tents where they are inspected and weighed entitling their owners to a ticket which they will then cash in at the factory.


These tea leaf sacks are then taken to a processing plant. There are two tea processing factories in the area, one privately owned and the other communal: the Kayonza Tea Factory.


The independent growers in the area all have shares in this communal plant which is doing so well for them that they even were awarded a climate change prize last year for their conservation efforts.

Villagers also complement their meals and income by processing bananas in every possible way imaginable.


They make banana liquor by burying the  green bananas in the soil under banana leaves and setting fire to them.


Once fermented, the bananas are dug up and placed in these hollow trunks where they will be squished by the man of the house (and only the man of the house) stomping them with his bare feet.


This is actually a dangerous job as the banana squish gets slippery and the man must hang on from ropes tied to the rickety roof of the hut to finish his work. Disregarding the process by which the liquor is done, it’s still nasty stuff and we wouldn’t recommend it. We also tried some banana juice and banana milk. Again, just don’t. What ever happened to simply eating a banana the way nature intended?


The village has one small clinic which is supported by contributions from the lodge we stayed in. Commonly though, villagers visit the traditional healer when they feel sick. He invited us into his “clinic”.


He showed us the plants he uses, all of which grow on the mountainside, to heal the most common complaints such as colds and stomachaches. Differently from the traditional healer in South Africa, he doesn’t use any divination aides to guess at what illness his clients might have but rather uses his vast experience to help them.


The healer learned his wisdom from his grandfather and is now passing it on to his grandson but I would say time is probably not on his side.


On our walk back from the healer, we ran into two young men carving gorilla souvenirs.


in a small hut.


The end result is fantastic.


On our last afternoon, we begged to be allowed to go for a walk on our own. The area is just so beautiful that having a gun-wielding guard takes something away from it even if he stays a couple steps behind. Our hosts reluctantly agreed.



We came upon a small field of butterflies


upside down birds


and even a few monkeys.



We saw a young man herding cattle on the mountainside, just like in Iceland!



All sorts of flowers


even poisonous ones, good thing we had been warned beforehand.


Young schoolboys on a break play futbol (can you make out the flip-flop goal posts behind the goalkeeper?)


while others look on.


Wasp nests,


blue-headed lizards,


and beautiful cows.


Most prevalent of all were the tea fields.


Our hosts seemed very relieved when we got back to the lodge safely and quickly carted us away to visit the local orphanage. More than an orphanage, this is a boarding school, Bwindi Watoto School, where most of the boarders have either lost one or both parents, a majority of them to AIDS. The school is privately run, doesn’t receive any government funding and thus survives on children being sponsored for their time at school by donors. The children perform a show every afternoon for the tourists in order to garner donations. Even though this is similar to what happened during our visit to the school in South Africa it had a very different feel, maybe because class was not interrupted for our visit but rather the afternoon show is a running event? The children seemed happy singing, dancing and playing with each other.


Education is a difficult problem here. Primary education is free by law to all children in Uganda. Worthy goal but elusive in implementation as there are simply not enough resources to go around for all the children needing schooling. Rural areas, like Bohoma, are even more likely to lack the resources to educate their children. There are at least three private boarding schools operating in the area and they all subsist on donations.


Our time in Uganda was fantastic although we feel we failed to truly understand the social dynamics going on here. As our driver pointed out, Uganda is a country rich in natural resources but its people are so terribly poor. He blamed it on a lack of democratic governance. As he explained it, to be able to build a business in Uganda, a person must have the approval of the president and only his close allies get such approvals. President Museveni has been in power for 30 years now and while his cronies keep getting richer, the rest of the Ugandan people still live in squalor. We can only hope that things will peacefully change for the very young, more than half the population is under 20 years old, people of Uganda in the near future. We would love to be back one day.


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Bwindi Impenetrable Park was established in 1991 and is managed by the Uganda Wildlife Authority which is tasked with the conservation of the area. The park is home to about 340 critically endangered Eastern Mountain Gorillas, almost half the world’s population.

In order to visit the gorillas, one must buy a very expensive ($600USD) trekking permit from the UWA months in advance. The permit is good only for the date, gate, and person indicated on it, which means that if anything in your plans changes, you’re out of luck. Furthermore, no one feeling ill or visibly sick will be given entry either, permit notwithstanding. For these reasons, spending this huge amount of money gave us great pause but we took the plunge and bought permits for one day. At the time, our agent strongly suggested that we buy permits for two days but we refused. Her rationale was that if we didn’t get to see the gorillas one day, we had better chances of seeing them with two treks. For anyone thinking of buying permits, that reason is nonsense: you will see the gorillas almost guaranteed. We didn’t know that at the time of course and when we changed our minds a few days later, permits for the area were all gone! Our agent managed to get us permits to a different area of the park from where we were staying which meant a very early (4:30am) wake up and over two hour drive to get there but we took them anyway. We are not at all sorry we did and actually think it worked even better for us this way.

For our first (far away) trek into the Ruhija area, the wonderful people tending our lodge woke up early to outfit us with waterproof covers for our pants, walking sticks and boxed breakfast and lunch. Upon arriving at the meeting area, we were divided into groups of eight. Three gorilla families here are habituated to humans and thus able to be visited. Each group of 8 people visits one gorilla family for one hour of the day, that’s all that is permitted. Two trackers follow each of these three gorilla families all day, every day, from when they wake up to when they bed for the night. The trackers make a note of where the gorillas bedded down before leaving them for the night and must get back to this place before the gorillas begin their next day in order to not lose them. As the group of people is about to set out on their trek, the guide radios the trackers for their location and then guides the group to that place. This method makes seeing the gorillas an almost certainty. The group is also accompanied by an armed guard since in 1999, Congolese guerrilla fighters abducted a tourist group, killing with machetes and clubs over half of them before releasing the others. The armed guard is really just for show I think since he’s only one person, but better not to dwell on these facts as you’re about to set out.

Before starting on your trek, you are presented with the choice of hiring a porter to carry your stuff for you. We were carrying so much water (heavy packs) that they did come in handy but if you don’t carry as much, a porter isn’t really necessary. Most of the people in our group didn’t hire any. There is another way of looking at this though: jobs are hard to come by in this area of the country. Some of these porters walk a couple of hours every morning to be there when the tourist groups arrive. Those that are not hired are dismissed for the day as there will be no other tourists; dismissed without work. Paying for a porter is providing a source of income for that person if nothing else. Plus they are super nice and helpful when pulling an out-of-breath tourist up a mountain. However, once close to the gorilla family, porters must stay behind and allow for the group of tourists to continue the trek on their own so it happens that the toughest part of the hike is done without their help.

It is not called the Impenetrable Forest for nothing.

Walking in here was exhausting!

This might be the toughest hiking we’ve ever done. It is oppressively humid even though we visited during the “dry” season and the average elevation is over 6,000ft which makes it hard to breathe. There are no paths as the group is simply advancing toward the gorilla family wherever they might be. The advice is to bring a waterproof jacket (leave it), good walking shoes (make that heavy duty boots), gloves (absolute MUST), and 3 liters of water per person (half a liter is more than enough). The hardest part of the trek is that the ground isn’t really there. The ground seems solid until you step on it and fall thru to a stream below which you hadn’t even heard, that’s how thick the cover is. The trees have spikes, thorns would be too gentle a word, so grabbing hold is inadvisable. I literally clawed my way up and probably slowed our group down considerably

but we were well rewarded as suddenly there we were, right next to the family.

female gorilla just chilling

Silverback Gorilla, head of this family


yawns are contagious

Can you believe that these beautiful creatures have been killed to make their hands into ashtrays? Don’t you just want to reach out and touch it?

I do, but we didn’t. That would have been completely inadvisable, not to mention against the rules. Visitors are supposed to stay 7ft away from the gorillas at all times. That’s a truly difficult rule to follow though as finding a solid place to stand is almost impossible. The gorillas take up the best spots! Sometimes being able to stay put means being quite close to them. Plus they move around with no regard to the rule. The distance is meant to provide a safety zone for the gorillas. Since we share over 97% of their DNA, that makes them vulnerable to human diseases; particularly airborne ones, which is the reason for denying entry to ill persons. It has been determined that 20% of natural gorilla deaths which have occurred in the area are due to illnesses transmitted to them by humans. While tourists such as ourselves bring a much needed source of income for the villagers, we also bring diseases from all over the world which threaten their very livelihood from said tourism. The best we can do is abide by our guide’s directions.

Male young gorillas are called Blackbacks. This guy will become a Silverback soon and he will either have to challenge the patriarch of the family or most likely, leave in search of his own family.

Blackback gorilla

The Ruhija trek was very difficult and getting good pictures of the gorillas almost impossible with all the vegetation in the way.  It was so thick that we didn’t even notice the gorillas trekking alongside at times:

What our feet looked like after the trek.

The boys loved this trek as it was a rugged adventure, just up their ally. I loved it too but had to take a two hour nap once back at the lodge. It certainly was beautiful and as hard as it was, I would gladly do it again.

Our next morning, we didn’t have to set out as early and were able to have a good breakfast at the lodge since the Buhoma area was right next door. Once again, we hired a porter mainly to help me out. I was still exhausted from the previous day’s trek and seriously doubting my ability to follow the group on this second day. I was thoroughly surprised when this day’s trek was the easiest walk we’ve ever done! Turned out that this gorilla family had made their nests the night before quite close to the park’s entrance and we only had to jump over a small stream to get to them. When we arrived they were just lazying about in their nests, not ready to come down just yet.

Our guide instructed us to stand under the trees and wait for the gorillas to come down. After about half an hour of standing around, craning our necks out to look at the gorillas overhead, I asked the guide if it wouldn’t be better to stand aside as it seemed to me that we were the obstacle impeding the gorillas from coming down.

He told me to stay exactly where I was. I think he did it on purpose. Seconds later, I wondered how the rain could penetrate such a thick canopy until I realized that was no rain: I was being peed on by a gorilla! I chose to take it as a lucky omen. As soon as the shower stopped, they began descending.

Some stopped to pose for pictures. Isn’t he handsome?

Once they were all on the ground, they began walking toward the stream. The Silverback brought up the rear of the column as if to protect his family from this group of hairless paparazzi.

Once at the stream, they settled down to groom each other.

While the adults looked at us with boredom, the babies were very curious.

This guy is only weeks old but with a head of hair to envy.

There was a sense of peace and contentment in the group. The kids played and climbed then upon falling, would run back to their moms for comfort, which these ladies never failed to provide.

Can you feel the love in that gaze?

Everything happens under the watchful eye of the big guy.

Our group of tourists was so affected by the privilege of sharing the gorilla’s day that there were some tears shed and the boys declared that they will never again visit a zoo. While the benefits of a good zoo can be debated, one thing is an absolute certainty: free animals exude a sense of happiness that is not present in caged ones.

Going on two gorilla treks only intensified our desire to be able to enjoy such privilege again some day. May it be so!

Categories: Africa, Uganda, UNESCO site | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments


In Entebbe, we boarded such a tiny aircraft that the in-flight meal consisted of the pilot handing a Tupperware full of mints to the passenger sitting behind him while saying: “pass it back”.



We flew into Kihihi which is a city of 20 thousand people where we were picked up from the airstrip by our own personal driver.

Kihihi’s only fuel station

Kihihi is located only 10 miles from the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is a refugee camp located here for the Congolese who have fled the violence in their country. I asked our driver if there is conflict between the citizens and the refugees. He was genuinely surprised at my question. He answered that they are the same people, they are brothers, how could they not help them when what the refugees want is safety for their families? Were we all that enlightened, what a world this would be.

Although less than 25miles away, the drive to our lodge took almost two hours as this is a volcanic (hilly) area and the roads are made of dirt. We passed a couple of tiny villages on the way, if they can even be called that. People here mostly work the land as there is nothing else around. Our driver explained how no one here goes hungry since fruits practically grow themselves by the side of the road such as pineapples














and of course, bananas.



The poverty is overwhelming nonetheless. Children walk hours down the mountain to fetch water from the stream. EVERY DAY.


That is, when they are not walking to and from school.



Even the tiniest kids make the hours-long trek in order to go to school. We saw them by the side of the road in the darkest hours of the morning wearing their crisp uniforms, carrying their lunch in plastic bags. Our driver, just like all others we encountered, drove like a maniac! We had to wonder how many of these kids get run over and hope it is none. That’s one thing about Uganda, no one seemed willing to talk ill about anything that had to do with the tourist industry since their livelihood depends so heavily on it.

Another widespread occupation here seemed to be brick-making. These men are piling bricks up to form a hollow tower


which they will then cover with mud.



A fire will be set inside the structure to cook the bricks before carting them away in bicycles such as this one.



We were surprised at how strong the women are, carrying heavy loads on their heads as if they were simply fancy hats.


When we arrived at our lodge, a tiny 5ft woman placed Fernando’s 40lb backpack on her head and walked us down to our bomas (cabins). We stayed at Volcanoes Safari Bwindi Lodge

view of the lodge from the mountain

which overlooks Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and is located so close to the mountain that the gorillas sometimes come by to mingle with the guests. This did not happen while we were there but the lodge’s manager, Jocelyn, still made sure that we were accompanied to our bomas every night by a guard just to be safe.

Yep, that’s the big not-so-secret: we came all this way to trek for Mountain Gorillas! This area is home to the 880 Mountain Gorillas left in the world, no specimens of which are kept in captivity, at least not legally. If you’ve ever seen a gorilla at the zoo, that was most likely a Western Lowland Gorilla. Mountain Gorillas are a subspecies of the Eastern Gorilla and are critically endangered meaning they have not a high, but a VERY high risk of becoming extinct soon.  Of these less than 900 gorillas left in the world (can’t wrap my head around that), almost half live in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Visiting the gorillas was terribly expensive but completely worth it and we’d do it again in a heartbeat if given the opportunity.



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From Kenya to Uganda

Before coming to Africa, we knew next to nothing about this continent. After all we’ve seen, now we know next to next to nothing; but at least we know our preconceptions have all proven wrong. I don’t know why, when traveling, it always surprises me so much to find cities, shops, cars exactly the same as I am used to where I live. It’s as if I know with my conscious mind that of course these things are common everywhere but then there’s a tiny unenlightened tenant in the corner of my brain that goes: “whooaa”.

This is what Nairobi looks like from the air:

That big stretch of savanna you see in the background is Nairobi National Park, a 45 sq mile reserve at the South edge of Kenya’s capital city.

It is surrounded by an electrified fence in order to keep wild animals and people separate but that doesn’t always work. Lions sometimes escape the fence and then panic ensues in the surrounding population. The lions leave the park usually following prey like warthogs and suddenly find themselves in the midst of an apartment complex. Nairobi’s population has been growing greatly and conflict between these two resident groups has intensified in the last decade. During these encounters, it is usually the lion who fares worse. As if that weren’t bad enough, the Chinese, as part of their aid to Africa, are building a rail line straight thru the park in order to connect Mombasa with Nairobi. While the rail line is expected to alleviate traffic, one can only sigh at the thought of its effect on the wildlife. Unhappiness with Chinese people, be they entrepreneurs, tourists, or poachers, is a common thread thru the African nations we visited. Mombasa Road is the main thoroughfare in Nairobi and divides the populated area from the National Park.

We didn’t actually get the opportunity to visit Nairobi: we were here three separate times but only to take connecting flights. During one of these trips, we had to spend a night in a hotel since our next flight didn’t leave until the following morning. It was an odd experience. Kenya depends heavily on tourists for its income and thus can’t afford to be thought of as “dangerous”, therefore it takes incredible precautions to provide safety for travelers. For instance, our escort from the airport to the hotel was not allowed inside the airport, we had to walk outside to meet him. He then walked us at a brisk pace for about 5 mins away from the mob of people waiting outside the airport doors simply to separate ourselves from large groups of people. Here we waited for what seemed to be forever for our driver, we found out why it took so long the following morning since we then had to do the entire process backwards. Drivers are not allowed near the airport. In order to pick up or drop off passengers, cars must go thru a checkpoint. All passengers must exit the vehicle and walk thru metal detectors. The car is inspected by security personnel as well as all luggage passed thru big scanners. One waits for the car to pick one up again on the other side of the checkpoint. The car will drop you off far from the airport itself and then you have to walk thru a tunnel and another checkpoint (with its luggage and people scanners) just to get inside. Once the luggage is checked (going thru yet another scan) you walk thru (you guessed it!) another scan into the waiting area. At check-in, you and your hand luggage will be scanned once again before you walk out on the tarmac to your plane. Here, you will be subjected to one last scan with a hand held device before climbing the stairs to your airplane. Pilots, flight attendants, and even the personnel bringing in the food trays are scanned as well, no one goes un-scanned.

While driving us to our hotel the previous night, which was only 10 mins away on Mombasa Road, we went thru about 5 checkpoints with humongous cameras with blinding flashes. Our guides explained that these are meant to see into the innermost corners of every car. They gave me a headache. Our hotel was surrounded by a 10ft fence and our car scanned with mirrors by AK47-wielding guards before being allowed inside the gate. Once inside, dogs sniffed our vehicle before they allowed us out. Our luggage was sent thru a scanner at the steps of the hotel and we also had to walk thru one before entering. Hallways in the hotel had doors not only at the end points but also midway which were unlocked with our key-card and guards could be seen thru our windows walking on the roof. While we never felt even the tiniest bit unsafe, we did feel a little sad about the need for this extreme security. However, everyone in Nairobi was wonderfully kind to us. Next time, we will be staying a bit longer to get the real Nairobi experience and visit Nairobi National Park where our guides assured us, Cheetah are so plentiful, they even climb on top of your cars!

From Nairobi, we flew into Entebbe, Uganda on the banks of Lake Victoria: Africa’s largest lake, second only to Lake Superior in the USA.

Unfortunately again, we didn’t get much of an opportunity to visit Entebbe as we were led to our very cute hotel for the night and picked up early the next morning for our connecting flight to Bwindi. Security measures in Entebbe weren’t as strict as in Nairobi but still more than we’re used to which again made us sad. Turns out that Entebbe is the departure point for bird-watching tours in Uganda which has been named bird-watching capital of Africa: over 600 species have been recorded here. Our tiny hotel had a huge tropical garden where people would assemble to begin their tours. We have a newfound respect for bird watchers as they require enormous amounts of patience and a very steady hand to be able to photograph those flighty beings! Our pictures were mostly blurs.


We came all the way to Uganda in search of a much, much larger animal though and we were not disappointed.

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