A Glimpse of East African Life, April 2005

Well I’ve just arrived in Nairobi today – a little bleary eyed after an allnight bus trip that bounced and jarred it’s way for 12 hours from Uganda. Nairobi  is a bustling, modern city with an attractive urban landscape that compares favourably with the inner city squalor of most of the other capitals I’ve visited on this trip.  The only problem with “Nairobbery” as it’s dubbed is that it turns into a lawless city at sundown and is widely regarded as the most dangerous city in Africa.  But don’t worry Mum – I’m in a good hotel and I plan to spend as little time here as possible!

The last few days I spent at Sipi Falls in Eastern Uganda – a magnificent little spot on the lower slopes of Mt Elgon, near the border with Kenya. Three waterfalls cascade in series from heights of 60 – 90m carving through a deep gorge. The panorama from my Scandinavian style cabin (although I don’t think the Scandinavians built theirs from bamboo!) exceeded anything I had pictured of this exquisite location!

I know it’s easy to focus on the highlights and adventures of this sort of trip, but I also thought it was time I gave some of you a glimpse of what it’s like to mix with the pace of local life when you’re legging it independently through some of these backwater places. Far from being a culinary journey for  the tastebuds, travelling through the smaller towns in East Africa means eating what the locals do – and food here is about subsistence and survival.  The East African staples are starchy matoke (mashed plantain), taro root, rice and potatoes usually with some grilled meat (chicken, goat or beef) or a stew. There are some favoured takeaway foods in each country – Rwanda the hotseller was barbecued goat skewers and in Uganda the popular feed was liver and chips!

Transport here is also another world! There are larger buses travelling between major centres – mostly I’ve been paying between $5 – $10 for trips anywhere between 6 – 12 hours! (Surprisingly cheap considering fuel is $1 US dollar per litre here) There’s often not a set time for departure – just when it’s full enough!  There’s a popular saying over here – “God gave white man the wrist watch, but he gave African man the time!”  You get used to sitting around waiting for things to happen.  In town I get about on boda-bodas (the back of motorbikes) and between the smaller towns you take matatus – ubiquitous Toyota HiAce vans that usually cram 15 – 20 locals like sardines, or shared taxis – small sedans that will carry 9 – 10 people!  All transportation here is carried out at break-neck speed, on either side of the road (you only give way to things that are bigger or faster than you), usually on bald tyres and to this point I have not come across a seatbelt in working order!  But although for most of you this doesn’t sound like a fun way to travel, I must admit that I’ve had some of my most enriching contacts and conversations with local East Africans while I’ve been munching on goat stew in some backwater bistro, or whilst sitting on some guy’s lap speeding along in a matatu!

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