A Writer Returns To Uganda Without Ever Leaving

I’d been looking for an excuse to leave Kampala for a several weeks. After our guard stole my roommate’s bankroll and the security company asked us to decide whether he should be fired or pistol-whipped — we settled on the latter after both protesting and soliciting his input — I’d been tasked with a story about health care that required me to loiter in a hospital where amputees dragged themselves down the halls from ward to ward. I was young and these slight horrors planted the seeds of anxiety: I was convinced that the waiters at the expatronized Ethiopian restaurant, who al-Shabab would murder a few years later, had become rude and that the screeners at the gates of parliament had taken an unhealthy interest in my press pass.

When my less-than-encouraging editor offered me the Murchison Falls story, I took it immediately. I’d never said no to him and it was finally convenient to say yes. I didn’t want to be at home anymore. My half-built compound had been all but taken over by a group of construction workers, men who wore their muscles like wet suits and sweated accordingly.

Murchison Falls National Park had once been renowned enough for its plentiful wildlife to attract the Queen and the Prince of Wales, but the last few decades had been hard on the area around Masindi and Lake Edward. A series of rebel armies — anti-Milton Obote, anti-Idi Amin, anti-Yoweri Museveni — took up residency in the hills near the Blue Nile. After a Lord’s Resistant Army soldier gunned down a British tourist on safari in the park in 2005, the State Department issued a warning and the slow trickle of adventurous Europeans stopped altogether. Most of Joseph Kony’s boys fled the scene of the crime and the few elephants, crocodiles and hippos that hadn’t been eaten or used for target practice were finally left in peace.

%Gallery-151569%I was to report on the resurgence of tourist arrivals in the park and interview some of the park’s staff and visitors. A National Parks functionary assured me that this trend was real and handed over a study that I felt sure had been fabricated for my reporting pleasure.

In Masindi, a bumpy 10-hour bus ride from the capital, I hired a skeletal Toyota with a cardboard floor for the ride to the campground inside the park. Despite lengthy negotiations — me pointing out that the car’s floor was made of cardboard, the driver pointing out there were no other options — I agreed to spend $75 to get in, leaving me with $60 to get back out.

“Easier to get out than in because you find friends,” the driver assured me.

“Are you going to come pick us up?” I asked. Skepticism must have leaked from my voice.

“That depends,” the driver said, declining to elaborate further on how he might be swayed.

I handed over the money and found a campsite as far from the group of aerosol-happy tourists in safari gear as possible. I shooed away a small family of warthogs, pitched the glorified sunshade I planned to use as a tent and fell asleep.

I woke in the version of Africa I’d fantasized about before coming to Uganda. God rays spotlit acacias and Africans were all but absent. The earth seemed to arch its taught back towards the sun. I met with a guide who told stories from the bad old days when the crocodiles were pockmarked from machine gun fire and I took souvenir pictures for an unrelentingly photogenic German couple. A park boat ferried us to the falls, where the spray created a miniature jungle eco-system populated by a playful troupe of Mangabeys. Water buffaloes nestled together in the shallows and a hippo hollered back at our boat’s engine, showing a broken fang.

A skittish Kob fled the yawning snap of a crocodile’s jaws as I took notes for color.

In the afternoon, I snuck away from the other tourists and climbed a hill towards the Paraa Safari Lodge, which sat clean and empty on top. The pool water bordered on opaque and the hunting lodge feel of the cavernous foyer was undermined by the blue glow of cheap fluorescent bulbs. Money hadn’t returned with the tourists and I was forced to flee an overly friendly concierge, who demanded I pay him “only $100” for a night’s stay. Back at the campground, the Mzungus had gathered to watch a storm come in over the savannah.

The wind kicked up and the rain hit before the clouds were overhead. The family of warthogs we’d treated so brusquely the evening before took shelter in the lavatory, frightening a drunk backpacker who peed on her leg as she hussled out into the storm. My sunshade-tent crumpled under the first downpour, filling with mud. I tried to pull it upright again and threw a tarpaulin over it, but the rain snapped a pole and the entire nylon contraption found itself in a rusting bin.

The on site bandas cost $50 a night so I faced a decision: Stay out in a flash flood the campers had been told might cause “hippo trouble” or have no money left to leave the park. I ordered a beer. A buzz looked like the only buffer I’d be able to afford against the creeping night.

The sky turned a yellowed grey and lightning lashed out at the savannah. Something substantial was moving in the bushes just beyond the tiki bar and the strong smell of the earth turned the Nile Special to borscht in my mouth. It took me two hours to empty the sweating bottle and, when I had, I felt relaxed in a way I hadn’t felt relaxed since leaving the states. I was backed into a corner, but, framed by the view of the dark plain, my quandary seemed both small and natural. Some places demand to be met on their terms.

It was nearly midnight when I noticed that the boisterous clan at a nearby table was speaking American. I moved closer to investigate and saw their reading material, Michael Savage and William Kristol. Along with their plasticene shirts and the Fantas all around, the paperbacks gave them away. I tucked the colorful part of my vocabulary under my tongue and approached them, using a Giants hat as a pretext for conversation.

“Are y’all from the Bay Area?” I asked.

They were and I’d lived there and yes, I knew San Mateo.

“What do you think of Zito’s arm?” the large, bearded man who appeared to be the mission’s leader turned and asked me. Time for the shibboleth.

“He’s just old,” I told him and found myself with a new friend.

Ten minutes later I’d been granted a seat on their plush tour bus all the way back to Kampala and two soft drinks after that I’d decided to spend the last of my cash on a banda. I fell asleep after herding geckos out of the bed. The rain puddled under the door and the bottle cap-sized spiders in the thatched roof girded their webs against the damp.

In the morning, I watched sturdy North Face tents birth the missionaries and helped them stuff their unnecessary packs into the back of the bus, which soon left the campsite behind.

We were standing at the top of the falls, a pit stop on our way back towards Masindi, when a skinny missionary in her mid-thirties approached me.

“I miss San Francisco,” she said.

I agreed that Northern California was a very missable place.

“I do feel like it’s getting ruined though,” she said. “I feel like it is just for the gays now. It seems like normal folk are going to get kicked out. Does it bother you?”

It was a pretty impressive piece of maneuvering. I had to become Judas or admit my base indifference to scripture. I went with honesty and outed myself. “Not at all,” I said.

She looked at me thoughtfully for a while before protesting meekly: “Don’t you want to have kids?”

A few scripted sentences later and I found myself alone. The missionary returned to her group, which buzzed briefly. I blushed into the wind and listened to the monkeys giggling in the trees. Politics stops at the waters edge, but only to take a deep breath before the plunge.

Back in Masindi, the large, bearded man pointed out a low-slung building and said, “Ernest Hemingway stayed there.” His implication seemed to be that this was something we could both be enthusiastic about and he was quite right.

In 1954, Hemingway and his wife arrived at Murchison abruptly as their plane crashed into the savannah. Two days later, after they were rescued by a passing boat, they crashed again in a different plane and Hemingway sustained the head injury that many blame for his depression towards the end. It was a horrible story.

“Goes to show,” he said. “You never know what it’s going to be.”

This folksy wisdom resonated for a second, but no longer.

I’d decided to relish my new role as dangerous interloper. I engaged a 10-year-old on the subject of his middle school love life and the a middle-aged softball coach type on global warming. Though none of these conversations became contentious, they did provide me with the opportunity to join the devil’s team. I picked up my pompoms. Though my impropriety was, for lack of a better word, dickish considering that these kind people we’re doing me a solid, I reveled in the relief of finally, after spending so long feeling vulnerable, being the unknown quantity. By the time the bus rolled into Kampala, I was refreshed to the point of being eager to reenter the Africa I’d fled. The smoggy chaos that had seized my neuroses now seemed like a bear hug.

I asked to be let off in a particularly ramshackled part of town, beneath a billboard advocating against “Sugar Daddies” and shook every right hand on the bus.

“Thank you so much,” I said as I stepped out. “You saved me.”

“You’re welcome,” said the skinny missionary. I clearly wasn’t.

I rode home on the back of a bulky Yamaha and I filed my story a few days later. When I wasn’t happy with the edits, I remembered that I didn’t have a monopoly on fear and told my editor the fudged stats were sitting too high. This protest made precisely no difference, but I felt good enough about it that I bought an extra plate of Ethiopian food for my bruised, inconstant guard.

A few weeks and a few confrontations later, the suspicion crept back in. Still, it never became overwhelming again. To be corned and to corner others was just the way of things. The savannah was never far away.