Uganda offers a different kind of life

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By Victor Block

UGANDA —

Enjoying a hot shower, buying meat at a market or strolling through a village may seem like commonplace occurrences. But in the African country of Uganda, these experiences are likely to be unlike life as you’re used to living it.

The shower is water poured into a rooftop tank, which drips through holes in a bucket onto the bather below. Meat is body parts of animals, some unidentifiable, strung up in an outdoor marketplace. And many villages are mud-brick huts with thatch roofs and dirt floors.

One impression of Uganda during my recent visit was how much diversity is squeezed into an area about three times the size of Maine. Broad plains and lush rain forests cover much of the country. One-quarter of the landlocked nation is under water, including Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world after Superior.

Most people visit Uganda to observe a Noah’s Ark variety of wildlife in its natural habitat. Our itinerary included visits to two major gathering places of elephants, and sightings of herds of zebras. We observed giraffes browsing on tender leaves at the top of tall trees as powerful cape buffalo wallowed in mud nearby.

Hippos immersed in rivers, baboons congregating alongside dusty roads and wart hogs with faces only another wart hog could love also caught our attention. Birders delight at spotting some of the 1000-plus species of resident and migratory winged life.

Several lion sightings were among the highlights of our game drives. A rare treat was a visit to one of only two places in the world where the big cats spend part of the day sprawled over tree branches.

Another special experience was trekking for mountain gorillas. Of the estimated 880 of those magnificent creatures in the world, about 400 live in Uganda’s aptly named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

The narrow trail up steep hillsides soon disappeared and our guide cut a shoe-wide path with his machete. Slippery ground and unbreakable vines that clutched at our feet added to the challenge.

When we finally located our prey, several peered down from tree branches where they were chomping on leaves, while others enjoyed their meal on the ground. When the silverback, the large dominant male, growled and began to advance toward us, our guide waved his machete and the hulking animal turned away. Guides also carry an AK-47, which, they assured us, would be used to frighten away an animal, not shoot it.

Along with the fascinating array of wildlife in Uganda, I found life of another kind to be equally intriguing. Many of Uganda’s 35 million people are among the poorest in the world, yet they retain a lust for life and amiable demeanor.

Women tilling the soil on steep hillsides, some with a baby in a sling on their back, often chat and laugh with friends toiling in adjacent fields. Wide smiles adorn the faces of children, who wave to passing vehicles transporting visitors.

I still picture lines of women and children walking beside roads that are more pothole than pavement, balancing a variety of bundles on their head. They included bunches of bananas, laundry just washed in a stream and heavy five gallon plastic containers of water pumped from the village well.

Deo Karegyesa, a farmer with whom we visited, explained that he sleeps near his sweet potato crop to keep foraging bush pigs away. He proudly pointed to a deep trench that he and other villagers had dug to prevent elephants from destroying their crops.

As we chatted with a traditional healer named Alfonse Bifumbo in his thatch-roof hut, chickens pecked at the dirt floor. He described herbs he uses to treat ailments that range from malaria to ear, eye and nose problems, and to drive away evil spirits that he said sometimes possess people.

The adrenaline rush of a charging mountain gorilla and stately beauty of lions sprawled over tree branches are but two memories of Uganda that linger in my mind. Equally fascinating were encounters with people whose culture and lifestyle are very different from mine, and that provide even more reasons to visit that fascinating country.

If you go …

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