I’m no stranger to flying at night. I’m used to knowing generally how close to the ground I am, judging how high we are and how much longer I’ll be stuck with my seat in its upright position. I know that once I come underneath the clouds I can start to see lights stretching far and wide – and as the altimeter continues to drop, the lights become closer and begin to move faster.
Finally, I can make out individual cars moving along the road and the tops of trees as we make our final approach. In most cities it looks exactly the same (beautiful), and makes a nice chance for a photo opp that never really comes out quite as magnificent as it looks in person. For this very reason, Las Vegas is one of my favorite places to fly into at night.
This isn’t the case as you approach Entebbe.
Blackness. All you can see is dark – with the occasional (single) light dotting the countryside more like specks than groups of high-powered LEDs.
Forgive my strange recollections (as it was closing in on 4am.. sans sleep..), but I sincerely was questioning where I was as I stepped off the plane in Entebbe, Uganda, home of Entebbe International Airport.
Between the sound of crickets chirping, feeling the clamminess of the temperate but humid air and the smells that seemed all so familiar, I could’ve been in rural Tennessee and wouldn’t have noticed a difference. Had it not been for the plane crew spraying down the inside of the aircraft before landing (which I must assume is deadly if you’re a mosquito), I might have actually assumed I was somewhere other than where I was – dreaming perhaps.
The rest is par for the course (save for having to present my “Yellow Card,” proving I’ve been vaccinated against Yellow Fever), until we begin the long 60 minute drive to Kampala. Drivers sit on the right side (thanks British Colonialism), and I’d venture to guess that not a single car on the road would pass the most rudimentary of emissions tests. Within 10 minutes I already have a headache from the fumes being released.
The countryside is just as dark from the ground as it is from the air. Gradually more and more developments on the road from Entebbe to Kampala begin to pop up, and even though it’s 430am, I can’t help but notice that a large number of people walking the sides of the road – and it’s impossible to determine if this is residual from the night prior or if many are just getting a good jump on the day.
I have to admit it was a little nerve racking not knowing if anyone would even be at the hotel at this hour (and then what to do for 3 hours..) or if any room would even be situated, but my nerves were calmed when we were allowed to check in, even at that ungodly hour.
But first, coffee.
First thing is always first in the morning, or in this case, the early afternoon. There’s a coffee shop not far from the HBT Russel Hotel in downtown Kampala called 1000cups Coffee. It’s set within rows of vertical plants so that it’s hidden from passers-by on the street; and this makeshift divider provides plenty of shade and the feeling of privacy while still allowing the breeze to freely roll through. There are a few men sitting scattered throughout, mostly just leafing through a newspaper or chatting with one another. It is here that we’re introduced to what is known as “Hawaiian toast,” which is essentially an assorted fruit sandwich with peanut butter and Ugandan honey. If you’re a fan of peanut butter and banana, this is a homerun.
After paying 40,000 Ugandan Schillings (~$11 US) for two filling sandwiches with sides of fruit and two coffees (good luck finding that in the US!), we take it upon ourselves to get in a good walk, taking pictures of local monuments and some of the sights (found throughout this post) along the way, being greeted by nearly everyone we meet as “ahhh, Mzungu!” (a term used for anyone of seemingly-European descent).
Never in my life have I been such a commodity. In a country where everyone looks mostly the same in height, build, hair, eye and skin color, I am the outcast. I stick out like a sore thumb.
To have a word for “people like you” can be marginalizing, and I can see now, with much clarity, why it is such a problem to prejudge and place people into categories. To be clear, being called Mzungu doesn’t bother me – I tell myself this is what Justin Bieber must feel like – and my response is always a smile, wave, and a “hey!” The real issue is that there are a number of assumptions tied to my being a Mzungu, not the least of which are that I’m a wealthy and powerful man from a foreign country that is to be idolized for being “from the outside,” and that I am to be feared. Those of you that know me well can attest that there’s only one of the above assumptions that’s even close to true. The fact of the matter is that still, I’m protected by my white male privilege everywhere I go. While few people alive are were affected directly by British Colonization, which ended in 1962, the principles of racial hierarchy and patriarchy are alive and well.
To me, change starts when we all realize that we have far more in common than we think; not a single one of us is better or above another – even when we look nothing alike. Let’s make a promise to each other to change that. People who have never met a white person shouldn’t live in fear of what we’re like. That, together racism and discrimination, are without a doubt learned traits.
I find the landscape to be far more picturesque during the day. With the remainder of the light (~ 5 hours worth), we venture to an area a few miles away from downtown Kampala. I take great pleasure dodging and weaving through minute holes in the traffic (as the locals do), where the number of close calls are too many to count. As much as it looks like chaos, I’d actually call it more of a waltz than anything else – somehow nobody gets hit. Contrast that with the cars in Cairo, each of which looks like it had just barely survived a demolition derby.
You see lots of things in different cultures that might make you uneasy. Uganda is of course no different, but after so many adventures, you learn to take most of it with a grain of salt. In Egypt its the sight of a man yelling with and eventually shoving a police officer, in Uganda its the non-chalantness of the men in uniform carrying weapons. You begin to learn that not everywhere is like where you’re from, and that’s great! Life has survived before you were there, and it will very likely continue after you leave. People will act this way with or without you – so you might as well just soak it all in.
As the sun sets, we agree not to attempt a walk back, and discover that Uber is not only a thing in Kampala, but also definitely the cheapest (and safest) mode of transport. For just 8,000 UGX, we catch a ride back to the hotel. We hop out early to take a walk through the famous Nakasero Market, which is still crammed with vendors pedaling their produce. Everything is lit by candle, and it’s so busy that the intended “walk” turns into more of a dance, bobbing and weaving between the mobs of people. It amazes me the hours these people put in to make a days living.
Nothing more on tap once we get back, however, for the next morning we’re off to Mukono, a village about an hour away, to meet with Leslie, the founder of The Real Uganda.