IMELDA NDOMO REMEMBERS HER STAY IN UGANDA – ONCE UPON A TIME …
(Posted 10th October 2020)
(Picture of the author)
Home Away from Home in the Pearl of Africa, Uganda
(by Imelda Ndomo)
My first experience of the excitement that is life beyond the borders of my country was in Uganda – and no big surprise here, I am East African. We are a community. Coming here as a teenager, I had no preconceived ideas of what it would be like; well, except for the famed “source of the Nile at Jinja” about which I was quite in awe, thanks to my geography lessons in School which had cast this image of outstanding, picturesque and world famous phenomenon. And so like the rest of the world, I imagine, I was joyous at the chance to behold this wonder in person.
As my time in the country would reveal, there was so much more that awaited me and which would leave an indelible mark – it has been sixteen years since, and any chance to go back to Uganda always feels like a gift, and coming back to my second home. One of the things I first noticed when I arrived was the food culture and how different it was to what I knew. I did not realize it then but this intersection was going to ignite in me a much deeper appreciation for food and set me on the path to being the foodie I see myself as today.
I recall vividly my first road trip to Kampala: we left Nairobi at 6.00am and were at the Busia border crossing into Uganda at about 3.00pm, on our way to Kampala. Curiosity kept me awake through this leg of the journey, or it could have been the travelling through remarkable, ever changing landscapes – from the open savanna sprinkled with farms and homes to glimpses of forested outcrops and plateaus, as one would expect of a country of such diverse landscapes as Uganda. To have a front row seat to this beautiful vista whilst traversing the country by road, and to have this complemented by a choice of healthy and the tastiest snacks – let’s face it, at some point during fifteen hours on the road, refueling with food becomes a priority – chicken bitings drizzled with fresh herbs and roasted over open fire; or banana roast; Ugandan plantains and more natural snack options simply caps the experience in the best possible way. In this age of heightened health consciousness, to have healthy food options readily available even whilst on the road instead of the sugar laden, long shelf life packaged stuff travelers would otherwise have to settle for is in my eye an enormous win. No better showcase for good street food readily comes to mind.
The people’s warmth made it so easy to immerse myself into the local experience. The food, entertainment, the social scene, I took it all in, and ended up extending my stay for a good year. And did the time fly! Over time, a distant nagging crept up in the back of my mind, a curiosity about the other side to the city – Kampala from the perch of those tourists that stick to all that is exclusive and touristic – the big name international hotel brands, the luxury tour itineraries, the members only leisure clubs.
Well, more than one and a half decades later, I have had opportunity to come back as a business traveler, with all the perks that come with it – a choice of luxury hotels in Kampala and Entebbe, chauffeured luxury cars and the best tour coordinators. And being in this position has laid bare for me one big paradox: I have found I much prefer the human connections and random experience that come with freely mingling with the crowds and immersing in the local experience, be it dining at the favorite local down the street a couple of times rather than sticking entirely with hotel’s formal dining experience, or catching public transportation downtown to Nakasero market to buy a souvenir or two rather than a private drop off. Maybe I am trying to clutch on to cherished memories from years ago when this city took me in as one of its own, and I knew it like the back of my hand; but more than that, it’s the personal connections I crave. Funny to think way back then, my desire to experience the other side to the city had to do with wanting to experience exclusivity, which I no longer crave; the flair of international cuisine that was oh so charming yet now, I eagerly scan the menu for the uniquely local dishes – Matoke, Luwombo, Groundnut sauce, specialty plantains, local tubers such as cassava and the list goes on.
One thing I could never have gotten enough of during my most recent stay in one of Kampala’s top international brand hotels in the city center was the amazing, unbridled views of ‘the city on seven hills’ from the rooftop terrace. It’s this unbelievable 360 degrees view where all at once, you come face to face with the outstanding landscape and geographical scenery of Kampala. The seven hills are in clear view from this perch, standing majestically and showing off the life of the city – the mansions and single standing homes at the top of the hills interspersed with greenery, cascading down to the more packed settlements dominated by flats at the foothills and to the city center in the middle fortified by the seven hills all around – it is a scene quite possibly out of a novel.
Standing here and gazing into the distance, I am reminded of the journey I took over a decade ago from South Kololo where I lived, to a local furniture market at one of these foothill neighbourhoods – the name eludes me – where we bought from local artisans some beautifully woven furniture for our new house. Well, time has proven the enduring quality and beauty of these items far exceeds appearances – this many years later, with a lot having changed, we still have and enjoy these same furniture, now in Nairobi.
I love stories, unmistakably so. Myths, legends, thrillers – stories of all kinds, and there is nothing better than a chance to live out or mimic a good story. And so living in South Kololo, it was hard to pass up the chance to explore the myth of Old Kololo forest – myth has it that the forest is inhabited by the spirit of love, with couples, and couples only encouraged to visit the forest and be blessed by this spirit thus strengthening their bond. As the universe would have it and much to my disappointment, I would not be able to experience the myth this time, being by myself. Ah, to come so close as to stand right before the mystery cloaked forest, and be completely unable to do anything to untangle the mystery! Well, I have been told that you can count on a good myth to be both lofty and elusive.
Situated 3,950ft above sea level and 81km from Kampala, Jinja is ever at the top of the wish list for tourist arrivals to Uganda. And rightfully so, given the historical importance of the source of the river Nile close by, its scenic beauty and the host of adventure activities that you get to experience here and nowhere else in the world. Six kilometers downstream from the source of the River Nile is Bujagali falls, one of the world’s most sought after sites for white-water rafting and bungee jumping, not only for the scenic beauty and the challenging falls, but also for its location at the historic source of the Nile.
Murchisons falls, where the Nile cascades down narrow gorges to a placid river below is famed for the outstanding scenery and teeming with diverse aquatic life at the foot of the falls. The surrounding Murchison’s falls National Park boasts diverse wildlife and a favorite birding site. Sailing, skiing, boat cruises, camping and golf – there is something here for every taste.
My fascination with water started truly young.
Growing up on the shores of Lk. Victoria, I had the privilege of waking up daily to beautiful scenery – open fields clad in the colours of the rainbow from the diversity of plants and trees, and to the eastern horizon, the shimmer of the waters of the Lake Victoria, locally known as Lolwe (meaning endless), which somehow appeared as though a vertical expanse of blue – grey and light shimmer, depending on the time of day and weather. It completely swept the horizon. The lake is such an integral part of the community’s routine, from transportation, food to a compass of direction and when we were kids, endless fun swimming, boating, weekend playdates much to the frustration of the adults, and at night, whiling away the time watching the warm, orangey glow of the fishermen’s lanterns light up one after the other.
Hundreds of miles away from home in Entebbe, I feel just as rooted and connected as though I were back home, looking at the shimmer of the lake Victoria and marveling at the expansiveness of the lake, over here much larger than I was used to growing up. Knowing that these same waters I grew up gazing at from my front door, I feel right at home even though I am miles away. I am not separated from home after all, it feels. My heart is right at home in Uganda.