Uganda is landlocked with more than 15% of the country covered by lakes. This leaves relatively little space for its 40 million people. As much as 90% of the agriculture is subsistence farming, and driving through the country, you’ll see everyone from children to adults working the land, growing bananas, coffee, tobacco, tea, groundnuts, cassava, more bananas and other staple starches. You get the distinct sense that they’re not doing it to make a living – they’re doing it to survive.
A young man transports a load of thatch on a bicycle © Gerhard Pretorius
Every town has a bustling pavement economy which means you’re never far from a local market, street-side butchery, pork joint, liquor shops or bodabodas. Bodabodas is the nickname for the millions of cheap Indian motorcycles used by East Africans to cross borders, transport produce, and commute.
Everywhere you go in Uganda you’ll see them, but it’s predominantly men who drive them as in some parts of the country women are discouraged from driving them or, as our guide put it, not allowed to.
And amidst this organized chaos, people are warm, friendly and seem content. You’re made to feel welcome and safe to wander around freely.
Clockwise from left: 1) An Indian motorcycle, known locally as a bodaboda, ready to transport eggs in Buhoma; 2)An ankole cattle farmer with a beaming, welcoming smile at Lake Albert; 3) A butcher selling meat on the side of the road at Lake Mburo. All photos © Gerhard Pretorius
SEARCHING FOR THE PREHISTORIC SHOEBILL
From day one we set off to see as many of Uganda’s 1,100 bird species as possible, and eventually, we succeeded in ticking off just over 400. But for the first and foremost on our list, we went wading through the waters of the Mabamba swamps – roughly two hours west of Entebbe – one of the world’s last remaining habitats for shoebills.
The swamps are navigated with old wooden boats fitted with outboard motors and oars (for when the boat inevitably gets stuck in some of the shallow, overgrown canals). Each boat has a captain and spotter who are in contact with the other boats via cell phones, trying to locate the elusive species. It took a little over two hours, but finally, we got word that there was a shoebill spotted about a 30 minutes’ ride away. The odds were slim, but we took the chance, and it paid off.
Whatever preconceptions you may have of seeing a shoebill up close and in the wild, forget them. If you’re fortunate enough to find one (many people travel from across the globe without any luck) you’re hit by an overwhelming sense that this is a distinctly prehistoric creature. An animal that has laid claim to the slowly disappearing environment it lives and breeds in far before we humans imposed. It’s this dichotomy of awe and compassion that makes the moment you see a shoebill one that will be with you forever.
A beautiful portrait of a shoebill in the Mabamba swamps © Gerhard Pretorius
After ticking off the shoebills, we headed north to the Masindi District. It’s a long drive from Entebbe, and even on a Sunday, the Kampala traffic can be a bumper-to-bumper nightmare. But once you break through the city and hit the road, you get to take in the ever-changing landscape and spend time with your guides, learning more about the people and the country.
By Gerhard Pretorius