It finally happened: we got a day off. It took us working until 5 a.m. on Friday night, but today, we were indeed, really and truly, free (at least, as long as I kept my cell phone on silent and studiously avoided reading any text messages from my boss).
So far, I’ve really enjoyed experiencing Uganda somewhat more as a resident than a tourist. My time here has certainly been made richer and more fulfilling by getting off the beaten path (for a Mzungu, at least), talking to real Ugandans, and patronizing Ugandan restaurants and hotels (and, somewhat less willingly, clinics). On Saturday, the other Research Assistants and I kept to this trend, spending our afternoon in Kampala’s sprawling Owino Market where Ugandans buy, well, everything.
As much as I feel like I should, it’s hard for me to maintain my typical disdain for capitalism and consumption at a place like Owino, where buying and selling is simply fun. We had been told that the market was a borderline no-go for whites, because the cramped halls between stalls were a perfect environ for pickpockets. People were indeed after our money, but not illicitly; as soon as we walked in, I was literally mobbed by vendors shoving into my face knock-off Adidas from China, designer pants shipped as aid to Africa by well-meaning yuppies, and refurbished radios that looked like their original cases were made in the 1950s. A single hour inside was exhausting, but ultimately exhilarating enough that I even happily strolled through the open-air meat market.
Today, though, I was a tourist. I spend a lot of time in Uganda feeling guilty for my wealth and angry at the unequal system I am a part of, and doing my best to distance myself from the reality that my time here is short and my commitment to fixing Uganda’s problems is transitory. There are times, though, when it’s nice to embrace my privilege and realize that hating myself doesn’t fix anything. So, today, I tapped Uganda’s second biggest tourist attraction (the first being Mountain Gorilla tracking): rafting down the Nile.
Today really felt like some higher power decided that I had earned a day of stereotypically African experiences. We drove to Jinja, the town at the source of the Nile, and went to the headquarters of Adrift, purportedly the safest of the rafting companies, a compound of fake thatch huts and generically African-looking trees. Outside, there was a pack of monkeys eating bananas on a fence. It was almost too good to be true. Jinja is in the wetter part of Uganda, and it feels truly tropical: the vegetation is almost impenetrable on both sides of the river, and at stages, we can’t go in the water for fear of crocodiles.
The Nile itself was totally unlike any river I’ve rafted before. It has almost ten times the rate of flow of the Colorado, and it shows in the rapids: I have truly never seen waves so large. Flipping is pretty much a given (I took two involuntary dips in the water), but it was surprisingly low key and – thanks to having so much volume – the river has very few rocks.
I spend most of my time in Uganda completely clueless about what is happening around me, so it was particularly exciting to be in a situation where I was the “veteran” who could teach others how to take a wave and grip a paddle. Ironically, my guide was from Richmond, Virginia, and (coincidentally) a fellow paddler in my boat was a Princeton in Africa fellow who is close friends with Jackie. Quite frankly, after a tough week dealing with some issues that felt very, well, Uganda-specific, it was nice to return to La-La, where I’ve lived for the last twenty two years, and will – with luck – be returning in three weeks.