At last, I have touched down on African soil.
As our plane broke free of the clouds and descended into Uganda, my eyes finally fell upon a land of which I have so long dreamed. I could only stare out the window in awe of a world that was still so foreign to me. Lush, rolling hills extended to the horizon in a vast sea of green dotted with small towns and snaking roads. Then the vast expanse of Africa’s largest lake came into view as our plane dropped down over local fisherman and landed at Entebbe airport on the shores of Lake Victoria.
Situated almost directly on the Equator, the air was thick and humid as our taxi began the 25-mile journey to Uganda’s capital city of Kampala. It would take over an hour to reach the hotel, but the drive would provide our first glimpse of life in this East African nation. Our driver maneuvered his way down streets that seemed all too familiar. There were the same roadside shacks selling assorted goods and bikes carrying massive loads; crowded motorbikes weaving through frantic traffic; women walking with their backs erect and bundles balanced on their heads; piles of local fruits and vegetables peddled on the roadside; and curious stares from a sea of dark, foreign faces. I was reminded of first impressions upon arriving in Fiji, Honduras, and India – all of which share similarities of the developing world.
Kampala is the center of political and commercial activity in Uganda with modern buildings rising skyward and dilapidated ones being restored. It is rather relaxed for an African capital, being safer and friendlier than most. Even under the darkness of the early morning hours, there seemed little to fear as we searched for our bus at the crowded station. Few people even seemed to notice the foreigners in their midst and we were surprised to see the locals so well dressed, as if they all had just come from church. Indeed, as the bus began the 10-hour journey across Western Uganda, the conductor led the passengers in a rousing prayer that stretched almost ten minutes and had me squirming in my seat, wondering how long ago the missionaries had hijacked the Africa of my dreams.
I had expected more of a culture shock upon arriving in Africa, but as we traveled from one town to the next, the “Dark Continent” did not feel much different than many places I have visited. Even more disheartening was that I did not feel welcome. Though Ugandans are said to be among the friendliest in Africa, I walked the streets and in exchange for my smile I only received blank stares. I felt as if I were an intruder in their land and during those first few days I was very depressed. This was not the Africa that I had expected.
Thankfully, all that would change in a matter of six short miles. We stepped from our taxi into the Ugandan Immigration Office where they stamped our passports and wished us a safe journey. Then we followed the road to where the pavement ended and stepped into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the world’s poorest country. When our feet landed on the dusty dirt road littered with potholes, it was as if I had stepped from one world and into another . Now, this was the Africa I had come to see.
We were directed into the immigration office where they asked us to sit while they verified our visas. Our passports were taken to the chief officer to be scrutinized while we waited in a small roadside shack. Through the window we watched as people walked to and fro, a scene of unending curiosity the likes of which I have never seen. Three-wheeled carts loaded with goods were pushed up the road by groups of sweating teens while women, young and old, carried precious baby bundles on their backs. Dashes of brilliant color passed by in both directions with the women wrapped in bright, colorful clothing. Dark-skinned policeman chatted in French, alternating with local Swahili. It was an endless parade through the open window as we waited almost an hour, wondering what was going on behind the boss’ closed door.
Finally, we were led into the chief officer’s room, a modest office decorated with pictures of the President of the DRC and counterfeit U.S. bills. But there was nothing modest about the man behind the desk. Tall, broad-shouldered and with the air of importance that comes from being the top man in charge, the chief officer barked into one of the three gold-plated cell phones in front of him while we sat uncomfortably, unsure what was happening. He seemed oblivious to the two foreigners seated in front of him, not looking at us or even acknowledging our presence. His irritation became even more heightened when he learned that we did not speak French and he would have to speak in English. In a stern voice he questioned us about our plans, seemingly ignorant that there was a national park in the Congo which tourists might visit. He seemed to ponder this new information for quite some time, mulling the decision over in his head. At last, he pushed himself up from the desk, thrust out his hand to me, and said, “You are welcome in the Congo.” With those words spoken, our passports were stamped and we entered the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The next three hours would be some of the most remarkable that I have ever experienced in all my travels. From the relative comfort and safety of Uganda, we stepped from a smooth paved road onto a dirt track littered with potholes. Packed into a small truck with a driver who spoke no English, we pushed through crowds that stared back at us as if we had just arrived from another planet. Indeed, it seemed as if we were in a world far apart from our own. All around us were signs of life stripped down to its most basic form. There were almost no vehicles to be seen and even the motorcycles so prevalent in the developing world were missing. Instead, they were replaced by rudimentary bicycles made of wood which were little more than a long plank atop two wooden wheels with a handlebar of sorts to allow for minimal steering. Some were even equipped with homemade shocks to ease the pain of the terrible roads on which they traveled. Yet, with no chains or pedals with which to propel the bikes, they more closely resembled an ancient and oversized scooter, capable of carrying loads pushed down the road or the occasional downhill thrill.
It was the almost complete lack of transportation which struck me the most. Whether piles of wood, sugarcane or crates of Coca-Cola, everything was carried or pushed, most often by the women and children. A seemingly endless line of bodies lined both sides of the road like a train of refugees moving towards an unknown destination. With only their feet to carry them, the Congolese just walk, an act of such basic and primitive human behavior that it was long ago lost to our society and designated as a recreational activity. The absurdity of my own life and those things I hold dear was quickly realized upon the sight of an elderly woman making slow, painful steps beneath a towering load and a teenage boy hobbling to his home, his weight supported on a homemade crutch while his broken leg dragged behind him.
Though the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the poorest country in the world, it was not the poverty that was so shocking. Undoubtedly, the people are poor- very poor- but there was no overwhelming sense of desperation, as I have seen in many parts of the world. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The faces that stared back at us where not filled with pity, but alive with strength and self-reliance. Their gazes seemed hardened by a lifetime of hard work and toil, but they are a proud people who have long been left to fend for themselves. They looked upon me not with jealousy or envy, but with blank and emotionless stares that seemed to pierce right through me. I felt not unwelcome, but perhaps unnecessary, as if there was nothing I could contribute that they had not overcome or accomplished on their own already.
Suddenly, everything I cherish became utterly irrelevant in this new world. I was just another “muzungu” (foreigner) with my fancy car and clothes, intruding in a world of simple people who have long been confined to a basic life void of luxuries nearly impossible to obtain. Their homes were built of sticks and mud- the most basic I have ever seen. Concrete blocks and tin roofs were almost nowhere to be seen, replaced by palm fronds and bamboo. A single water pump stood in each village, usually surrounded by a crowd of women in colorful clothing clambering to fill their empty jugs, some of whom walked three miles or more to retrieve their water. Children old enough to walk were strong enough to work, particularly the young girls who struggled to carry overflowing water jugs almost half their size, often while balancing a baby bundled on their back. Groups of young boys, their faces dripping with sweat, labored behind huge loads of sugarcane pushing with all their might to reach the top of the hill. And all too typically, the men were usually seen resting in the shade or standing together aimlessly in groups while the women and children toiled with daily chores.
It would take over two hours to reach Virunga National Park, mostly on account of the terrible roads. Often, it seemed the locals were making better time on foot while our 4-wheel drive lurched over piercing rocks and cratered potholes which fought us every step of the way. It was a bone-jarring ride through lush green forests and mountains behind which towering volcanoes rose. A sea of green consumed us in every direction as our vehicle climbed higher and higher into Africa’s oldest national park.
At last we arrived at Bukima Patrol Post, a tented camp once used by gorilla researchers which now serves as a base for visiting Virunga’s famous mountain gorillas. We followed the path through the forest until it opened up into a beautiful setting with expansive views of the surrounding area draped in tropical forest. From our camp we could see five different volcanoes, including Nyiragongo which lit up the night sky with the eerie red glow of its smoldering lava lake. Together we stood alone, looking out across the heart of the Albertine Rift with its rumbling volcanoes and dripping green forests. For the first time in five days, we were able to sit, relax and savor our achievement, finally having arrived in the Africa of our dreams.