Monthly Archive for July, 2008

Guest Blog: Mair in Kibale

The day after our car broke down and a few hours before we kidnapped a man, Daniel, Grania, Heather and I went chimp-trekking. The sky was very overcast so Grania kindly lent me her raincoat. Eddison our guide took us deep into the rainforest.

20080703_img_1306.JPG

Eddison told us that there were precisely 1,142 chimpanzees in Kibale forest, divided into several groups. I was surprised to learn that children under twelve years old are not allowed to join the treks. This is because chimps are four times more powerful than human beings, but because we are taller they assume we are stronger. (What a bluff!)

Eddison led us to a particular fruiting fig tree where he suspected the chimps may be hanging out and he was right. We heard a commotion in the trees and gradually about seven chimps from the same group appeared.

The chimps walked and sat around in the rain, doing their own thing, not taking much notice of the humans watching them. A group of three sat with their backs to us grooming each other. Eddison said they do this to indicate that they are not threatened by us. The alpha male sat on a broken branch resting his head on his arm, looking a bit bedraggled! It was a strange experience to be so close to wild animals. I had to remind myself that it was real – and I was not watching a documentary!

Half an hour later we left the chimps because we were getting extremely cold and wet. We arrived back at the reception area to change into dry clothes. My friend Hannah Lawson had been an artist-in-residence at Kibale in the 1990s, and she was interested to know if the murals she had painted on the outside walls of the visitor centre were still there… Yes they are!

mair2-061.JPG

Grania’s coat kept the top part of me dry. It’s made of polytetrafluorothylene – known as  gore-tex to me and you! This fabric has 9 billion pores per square inch – 20,000 times smaller than a drop of rain and too small to allow wind or water to pass through. But these pores are still big enough to allow vapour to escape. I imagined this as a protective second skin – like the one I needed to grow to enable me to cope with some of the challenges Uganda presented.

On the first day of our trip we drove from Kampala to Fort Portal. It was Sunday and groups of people and families were walking to and from church dressed in their ‘Sunday best’. When small children see a white person they often get excited and shout “Muzungu, Muzungu, How are you? How are you?”

I remember one particular girl who was standing alone on an elevated grass verge close to some shops. She was about six years old, and was wearing  the type of party frock that I could have worn as a child in the 1950s or 1960s. A white bodice with puffed cap sleeves, a full skirt with petticoats and a big bow at the waist. She was waving at me with an empty smile and then she blew me a kiss. At least that’s what I thought until Grania told me she was begging for food.

The day we went to work with Grania was full of contradictions. In the morning we visited ReachOut, a project that supports people living with HIV/AIDS in the Kinawataka district of Kampala. Apart from medical care, this project provides numeracy and literacy classes, counselling and grants to enable people to set up small businesses. There  were about 90 people waiting to see the doctors, and while Grania saw her patients we helped Fiona the pharmacist to bag up vitamin B complex tablets. When Fiona described her 15 month old son her face lit up, but she became more reflective when telling us that she had put her training on hold because she could not find a sponsor. (There is no free education in Uganda.) 

Just before lunch at a rather trendy art gallery, we visited the fund raising shop that sells jewellery made by women supported by Reach Out. Most of the necklaces and bracelets are made from rolled up pieces of magazines.

In the afternoon we visited Hope Ward at IHK, a private hospital with a charity ward. Sister Irene showed us a photographic record of some patients who have made a good recovery,  such as the man who was found unconscious in the road, the girl who had an epileptic seizure and fell into a fire sustaining terrible facial burns, and the man who recovered from elephantiasis. The ward was light and airy but only half full – there are not sufficient funds to keep all the beds open. On our way home we popped into the Congolese art shop to browse for more souvenirs.

Later on we went to the Diplomat Hotel for drinks before going for dinner at an Italian restaurant. Like on many other evenings, we talked about the difficulties that a developing country like Uganda faces, the poverty, the lack of infrastructure, the corruption and individual stories of suffering and courage. What can we do to help? Should we help? What is our motivation for helping? How can we protect ourselves from guilt-overload and not become depleted? As a white person I found the juxtaposition between poverty, consumerism, need and plenty, difficult to negotiate. Surprisingly we did not come up with any satisfactory solutions and I am sure that the questions will be ongoing.

When Daniel sent me the itinerary for our trip I noticed that white-water rafting would be taking place on the Nile while we were staying at the Haven. I am not a strong swimmer, am scared of drowning and assumed this activity would have nothing to do with me. How wrong I was! Grania told me that white-water rafting was like driving over a Ugandan road full of pot holes. Daniel said that it was just like sitting on a big sofa. I did not believe them!

To say that I was terrified would be an understatement. But I asked myself – how I would feel if I missed an opportunity to do something outside my comfort zone,  relived or disappointed? Let’s just say that I still needed my second skin!

mairs-trip-025.JPG

I still can’t quite believe that I have been white water rafting on the Nile – but here are the pictures to prove it!

mairs-trip-020.JPG

Thank you so much Daniel and Grania for organising this wonderful trip. I am very proud of both of you for the work you are doing. The memory of Uganda, her people and her landscape will stay with me for a long time.