The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect those of VSO

Friday, September 23, 2011


A remark from a friend shortly before leaving Australia sticks in the mind. I asked how her elderly father fills in his time and she said that he washes the dishes. I said, "that can't take too long surely" to which she replied, "he washes the dishes VERY slowly." I think of that sometimes when I walk up and down the road to my office. Most people walk at a snail's pace compared with the high octane 'muzungu walk'. I'm sure Rwandans think it's hilarious but I tell you what, it's a great way to shake off a squad of demanding kids from Les Hirondelles school. Watch them try to keep up with Usain Walls!
Misses Inatek 2009 and 2010 (see story below)
Once in the office the first person to come and shake my hand is Guido who was brought up and educated in Uganda and who returned to Rwanda in the mid 1990s, like thousands of others, after the genocide. He is often referred to, at 63, as the old man as there appear to be no other people of his age working for the district. He is two years from retirement and as a good English speaker is responsible for that modern day essential, the district website. (http://www.ngoma.gov.rw/) Having left Rwanda as a school boy in the early 1960s, shortly after the first major post second world war conflict in the country, his outgoing manner reflects his many years away from the much more subdued culture of Rwanda.
Strange group performing tribal singing at Kigali-Up music festival
Rwandans are not the chattiest of people but Guido likes to know what I get up to at the weekend although he now avoids asking about church after the praying saga recounted in a Question of Faith. (http://deniswalls.blogspot.com/2011_05_01_archive.html). I told him that I had played a full 90 minutes for the Kigali Kougars (my scorched face and scalp were evidence), been to a music festival (mostly rained out) and taken part in a VSO celebration party to welcome new volunteers to the country (I got down and funky with the Intore dancers). "What about you?" I ventured in return. Turns out his five adult sons had come all the way down from Kigali so he could treat them to a fanta. (I know there must have been other benefits but that's what he said.) I am in awe of the powers of the coca cola company in this country. Imagine enticing western offspring homewards with the promise of a sticky drink at the end of it! But you've got to love that simplicity.
Office taboos

I couldn't continue my sugary chat with Guido as I had an appointment upstairs with the Executive Secretary of the district to discuss details of an upcoming meeting on VSO's annual performance review to which 20 people had been invited - important stuff like where we would be having lunch and whether drinks would be provided. As I waited I studied the five taboos and values for Vision 2020 pinned to his door. (See adjacent photos) That is the year by which Rwanda aspires to be a middle-income country, or the Singapore of Africa, whichever you prefer. I'm not quite sure how invulnerability relates to lack of trust but it is interesting to observe how often the meetings I attend use the jargon of western bureaucracies. 'Effective and efficient', 'continuous improvement', 'transparency', 'quality outcomes' and even (heaven forbid) 'moving forward' are present in documents in all their obfuscatory glory. When I am listening to a speech in Kinyarwanda I will suddenly hear one of these beauties casually dropped into the spiel. I sometimes trot them out myself when I am doing a presentation and forget the extent to which I have been drugged by clichés.
National values to aspire to

One of the most popular verbs in English language documents is 'to sensitise', roughly meaning to inform people or make them aware. "We must sensitise society/schools to the education of girls" is typical. It's a direct translation from the French 'sensibiliser' and I never know whether to change the word to something more globally familiar, in documents that have been badly translated from the French, or just accept it as new Rwandan English. Ah, decisions! Interestingly, Taboo 4 (fear of conflict: artificial harmony) invites Rwandans to be less sensitive and more frank with each other.
Warthog and topi on skewers with poacher
I was 'sensitised' to a very important problem recently when coming back from Akagera NP. We got a lift with some rangers who were taking three poachers to the police station to be locked up (they would get six months we were told) for killing a warthog and a topi. They had been smoking the meat on long skewers over an open fire in the national park when the fire spread and alerted the rangers that folks were up to no good. It is a measure of the increasing confidence of poachers in the NP and, also, their desperation such is the problem of exploding population, land encroachment and lack of alternative employment opportunities. Bush meat is cheap too compared with beef or even goat. The above photo does not, of course, convey the stench and the flies engulfing these less than tasty looking kebabs.
Miss Inatek 2011 and the two runners up
Sensitised to equality for girls in schools we may be but some things remain the same the world over when it comes to beauty pageants. There is clearly a sensitisation imperative to male inclusion! Miss Inatek (Institute of Agriculture, Technology, Education of Kibungo) was the event and the main hall of the district was packed with an expectant crowd. It started fashionably late, featured top musical performers from Kigali, who accepted the numerous power outages with stoical good grace, and eight female students from Inatek who slinked on stage wearing four different sets of clothing. The handicraft ones were the best. The finale was when they had to answer two questions in either Kinyarwanda, French or English. None choose their native tongue one can assume because there were extra points for talking in a foreign language. Most chose to struggle in French over their even weaker English. The first question was what they would do for Inatek if they won (everyone wanted to be une ambassadrice for the college) but the second was a little unequal. One girl was asked how long the Miss Inatek competition had been running (since 2009) whereas two others were asked to comment on relations with France in light of Paul Kagame's first official visit there since the genocide and, bizarrely, on the role of football in Rwandan society. I'd like to see some man hunk being asked seamstress questions to decide who was best qualified to be Mr Inatek. The audience seemed to have decided who the winner would be well ahead of time and sure enough she was. I reckon Miss Photogenic deserved it. She is the one in the bad photo below, catwalking the handicraft part of the contest, who looks like she enjoys a square meal.
Ms Photogenic

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Return to Kibungo

"Hey old man, what is your motherland?" asked the youngish chap next to me on the Kibungo bus. Well, truth be told, I didn't quite know how to respond to this delightful inquiry. "Actually it's fatherland old bean, and don't you know that 60 is the new 40," was, of course, only a belated reflection. Actually the only countries with parenthood I can think of at the moment are Russia, Germany and France. (Your job is to remember which one(s) have a mother and which one(s) a father.)
Head teacher training

Then I thought a bit more. What am I, Australian or British/Scottish? I'm working with lots of Poms, I'm geographically closer to Europe and practically on the same time zone, AND I look up the Guardian website more than the ABC one! Traitor! However, I am working and travelling here on an Aussie passport and I was really pleased that Cadel Evans won the Tour de France even though I don't much care for him. But he's an Aussie, oi, oi oi! Then, when the Scotland football team were cheated by the referee in the last minute of the game against the Czechs to drop two crucial points in the European Championship qualifiers I was almost apoplectic. That ref deserved to die. The mixed up migrant, right?
The smoking ground (see story below)

Anyway, back in bus-world, I was wearing my quizzical expression, eyes upwards and finger over mouth, and the poor bloke was probably wondering if I was ever going to answer what he thought was a straightforward question. Finally, I said Aus...tral...i...a - four clear syllables in order not to confuse it with a small European country. I think, strictly speaking, I was wrong as your mother/fatherland surely means where your mater and pater brung you up, innit?
Theo and Renata at the electricity party!

The level of English in Rwanda is pretty wretched so all power to the guy on the bus for at least trying to communicate albeit in a rather unusual way. There is no polite form of request in Kinyarwanda and no 'please' so the English equivalent usually tends to be pretty abrupt. Common utterances are 'I want, or give me... chalk, pen, paper, money' instead of the dressed up English ' I'd like, please may I, could I, can I, would you mind, could you possibly' locutions of our normal discourse. Recently, when I was watching a football match, a guy came into the bar and said 'would you mind if I sit here' referring to a neighbouring chair. I looked around to see if I was dreaming but he was real and had seemingly learned the expression from listening to tapes. Needless to say, in my educational role here, I try to emphasise expanded forms of English communication...... but not usually when the footie's on.
The source of the smoking ground
I was waiting for all the head teachers to arrive for a training session (a 'formation') out in the boondocks one day (a 9 o'clock meeting is lucky to start before 10). Weather is always an interesting subject so I thought I would broach it. "You certainly have a great climate here in Rwanda," I averred. "Yes," said the team leader, "this is proof of God's goodness. We are poor but he gives us good weather. You are rich but he gives you hurricanes and floods." I like the idea of a supernatural Fair Play Dude but think that Somalia and a few other places might be questioning the even-handedness of the Umpire's decision making.
Crowds gathering for the electrical event of the week including a classic head wearer
Rwanda, which is almost completely Christian, has undergone a fairly recent historical switch from animism. The first of the old kings to convert was only in 1943 and was part of a Belgian colonial policy that called for mass conversions. Christianity soon became a prerequisite for membership of the Tutsi elite and three days of celebration followed the decision in 1946 to dedicate Rwanda to 'Christ the King'. Nowadays, this is such a religious society that even the authorities are worried. A recent nutrition report expressed concern that too many Rwandans spend too much time in 'prayerful activity' to the detriment of work. Consequently family diet suffers. There is also a big push for increased agricultural productivity as part of the land consolidation program and excessive praying won't put extra food into the market place. But some of the charismatic and evangelical churches that are springing up say that becoming a devoted member can make you rich and the preachers themselves are often exemplars with their smart clothes, car and well-fed look. If them, then why not us?
How electric cables are wrapped together
The religiosity of the people may be one of the reasons that no one seems to know much if anything about dinosaurs. After my exchange with the Ugandan hotel receptionist (recounted in Into Uganda - Part 1) it has been tempting to probe deeper into Rwandans' knowledge of the Terrible Lizards. So far the scorecard is not promising with only one person Stella asked having the vaguest idea about them. I don't suppose it really matters in the daily scheme of things but is indicative of the constant search for explanation which lies at the heart of an enlightened educational system. Most people here still believe that God made everything in a trice so dinosaurs and their links to the evolutionary cycle get in the way of pat answers.
Electricity arriving in our yard

 'Satan' and 'hell' are widely used religious terms in Rwanda and with the history of the 1994 genocide and previous slaughters over more than 50 years it's easy to understand why. When smoke started to come out of the ground outside our house I thought, too, that Old Nick was up to no good. The first clue that something was wrong was when friend Theo came rushing into the yard with a concerned look on his face. There had been a heavy downpour and something odd was happening to the ground outside. Out I went to see three men staring at something more interesting than me. "They're cooking in hell," said one ominously. It certainly looked like it. A trail of smoke emerged from a depression in the ground. Eventually repairmen came and the crowd grew in size. The pictures show the smouldering electric cables that were the cause of the problem. A bit Heath Robinson don't you think? Our guard Justin summed it up amusingly when he said, "all this underground stuff will be the end of us." After the huge hole that appeared in our back garden and now this, I'm inclined to agree.
The back garden hole being reclaimed by vegetation

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Into Uganda - part 4, the wildlife

One of the main reasons for being in Uganda, of course, was to see the wildlife. The trip proper started at Entebbe after a long bus trip from Kigali via Kampala. First port of call was Entebbe Botanical Gardens and a meeting with a young guide called Lawrence who spent a year in the US and has come back to set up an environmental group titled Green Youth Conservation - Uganda. Its constitution is worthy of any grand NGO in seeking to maintain and promote environmental sustainability in the country. Good luck to him and the organisation because it is only through the efforts of locals like Lawrence that nature stands a chance.
With Lawrence in Entebbe Botanic Gardens

One of the heartening things about the trip was hearing about, and seeing first hand, the good work done by VSO (who I am working for in Rwanda in case you have forgotten) which has trained guides who have often gone on to start their own successful businesses. At Mabira Forest (which as I wrote previously is under threat from sugar cane growing) and Fort Portal, companies had benefited from VSO training, in particular through the work of Andrew Roberts who still lives in the country and now makes a living in Kampala as a mapmaker. They are the most exquisite maps and an absolute prerequisite for anyone planning to tour Uganda. By the way, Broad-billed Roller and Black-and-white Shrike-flycatcher were highlights in the gardens.

We stayed three days in Entebbe, 40 minutes south of Kampala, not just to hang out with the Kampala Kool Crowd at their trendy Lake Victoria playground, but because it is an excellent gateway to some key wildlife destinations. We took a boat to the Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary from where the picture of the handsome grey-haired chappie was taken. Rehabilitating abused and orphaned chimps can be tough work judging by the racket they make at meal times and the troubling, rock-throwing habit of one particular fellow with his liking for tourists as target practice. We also visited the Zika Forest Reserve for our first sightings of the charming, white-nosed Red-tailed Monkey and plentiful, locomotive-sounding Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill. The Reptile House, set up by an entrepreneurial local in his property down a dusty, winding lane, was an unexpected delight. The pictures of snakes and chameleons (in picasaweb) were taken there. He is trying to create the special kind of watery habitat at the foot of his garden conducive to the lungfish loving but scarce Shoebill which is the prize bird of Uganda. It is also the easiest country to have a relatively good chance of seeing one. He'll be able to charge at least double entry fee if Shoebill start turning up in his backyard!
Green Mamba
However, our destination for a possible sighting of this strange bird was the Mabamba Swamp to the east of Entebbe on the shores of Lake Victoria. They had disappeared from the swamp for a while and headed east but we had heard that a handful had returned and if we were lucky we might get to see one. It turned out better than expected. The weather, which had been wet in previous days, started fair. After passing a returning fisherman we entered the reed-lined channels and saw a family of what were most likely Spot-necked Otter. Lakes Victoria and Bunyonyi are two of the remaining strongholds of the species. Then almost immediately the guide spotted the sentinel shape of a distant Shoebill. We approached slowly. They can stand for hours in the same pose before pouncing for the kill. That's why it's important not to startle them. Imagine having to fly off after a three hour stint on the same spot and start all over again just because of some stupid photographer's hunger for the perfect snap. Our guide was very clear about how close we were allowed to get. After all, his livelihood depends on it. He doesn't want them heading back to the swamp on the other side of Kampala where some poor bugger was making a crust out of them until a tourist got too close and sent them back to Mabamba. Maybe!
It was one of those wildlife moments where you fear disappointment after seeing so many images of a spectacular creature. Fear not! They are stupendous birds with their outsized bill and kinky little quiff at the back of the head. We saw three birds in total, one quite permissibly close, and each looked as though it would have us for breakfast given half a chance. If I might anthropomorphise for a moment, they do have a slightly evil and very determined look. In the course of our marshy meanderings a long sought after Papyrus Gonolek made a brief appearance, its golden-yellow crown winking at us through the dense papyrus growth. Goliath and Purple Heron also showed up, as did a splendid Saddle-billed Stork.
Papyrus Gonolek

Mpanga Forest Reserve (briefly) to the west of Kampala then Mabira Forest (the next day) west of Jinja, were followed by Budongo Forest in the north west just south of Murchison Falls National Park. These are magnificent and now, sadly, rare environments. As always in rainforest, sightings are difficult but some things stand out; at Mabira, the uncommon, brown-headed Forest Wood-hoopoe foraging above our heads giving a bad case of birders' neck ache and the African Crowned Eagle, perched to expose its splendid rufous, barred front. That came as a wondrous shock, the most impressive chest I've ever seen in a raptor. Budongo revealed its delights slowly along its famous Royal Mile, a journey that the old kings of Bunyoro took to a retreat deep in the forest. Chocolate-backed Kingfisher was the dessert here. What's not to love about a bird with a name like that? The 4-inch African Dwarf Kingfisher came out of a nest hole in a bank to sit prominently on a nearby branch, the wonder being that its disproportionate bill didn't topple it over.
Dwarf Kingfisher

Waterways in African national parks usually have abundant wildlife and Murchison NP is no exception. The Nile flows into Lake Albert at Murchison Falls and the sides of the lake have hippos, crocs, buffalo and heaps of birds. A boat goes near the bottom of the falls where you can get out and climb up to the top for a refreshing spray. We lorded and ladied it for a night at the Paraa Lodge which turned out to be a lot less expensive than the equivalent in Kenya or Tanzania. It maybe pays to just turn up at the hotel door because I don't think anyone else had ever done it. It looked like Silvio Berlusconi's glam set, with hair, breast and shoulder implants, had all decided that Uganda was the new Big Thing. Stella and I joined them, minus the face-lifts, and turned into a pair of ravenous carnivores to compensate for possible protein deficiency in our Rwandan diet.
The game drive around Murchison the following day turned into the usual manic lion and leopard hunt. Forget about Where's Wally or Gaddafi, there should be cartoons and children's games with a lion or leopard secreted among the plentiful other fauna. But hooray, we saw a leopard so that means we've seen the Small Five (remember Tanzania blog) and, at last, the Big Five. Our guide was furious that people were getting out of their cars to take pics of the tree lounging leopard as the Murchison variety is very prone to dashing off at the first sight of a tourist. Gee, I'm glad to have seen them all - buffalo, rhino, elephant, lion and leopard - because now I never again have to charge around with other 4x4s willing our vehicle to be the magical one that finds the beasts. It can get very competitive but once you've had a decent sighting, hopefully in relative calm, cooperation kicks in and you're supposed to radio in the other vehicles so that they too can share in the photo-snapping action. By the way, we did bump into a few lions as well (seen them before so what!) and the Rothschild's Giraffes in the park are lovely. Favourite birds were Northern Carmine Bee-eater (wow!), Red-breasted Bee-eater, Red-necked Falcon, Denham's Bustard and the wonderful Abyssinian Ground-hornbill. Mammals seen were Spotted Hyena, Elephant, Hartebeest, Delassa waterbuck, Uganda Kob, Oribi, Bushbuck, grassland dwelling Patas Monkey and Warthog as well as the previously mentioned. Oribi are very pretty dwarf antelopes and the attractive Kob (a medium sized antelope) is the national animal of Uganda.
Denham's Bustard and Oribi
After taking another of life's many roads from hell, this one 10 hours' drive from Murchison to Fort Portal (see pic), it was time to relax for a bit and plan the next stage of the trip. FP is the launch pad for visits to Semliki NP near the DRCongo and Kibale NP but, as the road to Semliki was under construction and promised long delays, we decided that the Crater Lakes and Kibale were the better options followed by a stop at Queen Elizabeth NP further south. The main attraction at Kibale is chimp tracking, which we weren't particularly interested in.

However, there is a very special bird found in the forest. Ever since living in Malaysia 30 years ago, the Pitta family of beautiful ground dwelling birds has fascinated me. Once they were called Jewel Thrushes because of their magnificent colours. But they can be buggers to see, nearly always choosing dense rainforest as their habitat. At present there are 33 species in the world although that is changing as species like the Red-bellied Pitta, a race of which is found in Australia, are split following DNA analysis. There are two species found in Africa and the one in Kibale is the extremely rare Green-breasted Pitta. We had to leave well before sparrow-fart from the lovely Chimpanzee Guest House, with its terrific view over the forest, to try and nail the elusive blighter. (That's just jokey birder tough talk!) It is also an unusual species in that it doesn't respond to calls, the normal way of locating pittas. Rather it is necessary to find a possible location and wait for it to call or, in this case, hopefully make an appearance on a preferred branch which it only does at dawn. Then it spends the rest of the day on the ground scuffing through the leaf litter.
Green-breasted Pitta
Our guide was a local pitta expert and we set out in the dark into the forest before deviating down a narrow path where we waited for daybreak. We had been joined on the outing by an English birder, Charles, who was staying at the same guesthouse and works for the UN in Nairobi. If the bird was going to show up it would do it at 6.45. This particular pitta wore a Rolex. Except the battery must have run out because we waited.....and waited........and waited until the bird had no further excuse and dejectedly we made our way back to the main track. We continued to walk along in silence when suddenly the guide heard a noise. "Pitta", he said instantly. Stevenson and Fanshawe's 'Birds of East Africa' describes the call as 'unknown', so saying it sounded a bit like a frog will have to do. Once again, but this time very cautiously, we headed off the track towards the call. This is another curious feature of the Green-breasted Pitta. Finding them depends on luck and skill but, unlike other species, it is not as easily scared once located. The three of us were told by the guide to wait patiently while he attempted to find the bird. This is always a nerve-wracking moment, binoculars at the ready, fearful of breathing let alone stepping on a twig the crack of which invariably sounds like a nuclear explosion.
Ugandan Kob

"It's there, through the fork in the tree in front, can you see it?" The guide was insistent. "Quick, quick." Stella could, Charles could, but muggins couldn't. I didn't want to lift my head in case I blocked Charles's view. He was taller, was behind me and I knew he was keen to take photographs. But that was the problem. The tree trunk was obscuring my view. I raised my head a tad and immediately saw the pitta quietly perched on a log with its distinctive black and white face markings and brilliant green breast. What a moment. Then it hopped down flashing its bright red belly as it disappeared out of sight. That was it. We weren't blessed with a longer view. We tried to see it again and nearly did, but my brain has had to re-construct the experience out of that brief though wonderful moment. So I may have exaggerated!
Red-chested Owlet

As we were wandering through the forest trying to locate the call of a scarce Red-chested Owlet, the familiar screeching of chimps erupted. I looked up and saw one in a tall tree. Who needs to pay over $100 a head when you can stumble across them birding. Stella and Charles didn't see it but to oblige, another chimp appeared in full view brachiating in the general direction of the owlet. That'll be the end of owl spotting we thought. But no, it was still calling although why it does that during the day I don't know as it just encourages other birds to mob it. Eventually we could make out the owlet's red chest high up in the canopy. A troop of Italian chimp trackers with massive cameras and bright yellow clothing bustled past struggling to catch a glimpse of our closest simian relatives. The morning highlights concluded with great views of a Red-bellied Paradise-flycatcher, the rainforest cousin of the much more common African Paradise-flycatcher.
Lappet-faced Vulture

We headed southwards getting reasonable views of the Rwenzori Mountains (Mountains of the Moon) to the west. Mt Margherita, at 5109 metres, is the highest peak in the range and the third highest in Africa after Mts Kilimanjaro and Kenya. We were on our way to Queen Elizabeth NP or rather the savannah part of it because it is so big that you would need a week to properly explore its diversity including forests and gorges. The Kazinga Channel between Lakes Edward and George is truly spectacular with more buffaloes and hippos than you can shake a stick at. There were elephants in the water and even lions on the slopes but you needed binoculars to see them. The park itself is still recovering after the animal slaughter of the Idi Amin years so numbers were low on the game drive. A striking Lappet-faced Vulture attacking a carcase was the highlight. There was another lion which once again couldn't be seen well without binoculars. I don't really understand people - the vast majority I'm afraid - who spend a small fortune visiting game parks and don't bring binoculars. What's the point? I would rather do without my camera. In chimp tracking at Kibale, watching the leopard at Murchison and lion spotting at Queen Elizabeth people missed out really seeing the creatures because they were too far away.

We went to see the flamingos in a lake just outside the park. That's always beautiful but the most interesting part was the visit to the nearby saltpans of the Lake Katwe depression where temperatures can soar to 45 degrees C. Many hundreds of people make a living excavating massive rocks of sodium carbonate from the lake bed which they then drag back to shore from where they are later sent for transformation into a variety of products including salt. The money is good by Ugandan standards at $100 a week so the men are even prepared to sacrifice their manhood for the dosh! Despite wearing protective leggings against the burning astringency of the water, it still causes impotence when immersed in the water for the nine hours a day that they work. Even then they can work no more than three days a week or their health would suffer catastrophically. Who says that men only care about one thing!
Sodium Carbonate rock pullers
Finally we relaxed at Lake Bunyonyi for a few days as you will have seen from last week's blog pictures. This is definitely to be recommended but just remember to bring lots of warm clothes.

The wildlife top three for the trip were as follows: 1. Pitta 2. Shoebill 3. Leopard.

And that'll have to do for Uganda folks.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Into Uganda - Part 3

We were in Uganda during a period of social unrest. Museveni has been in power since early 1986 and won a fourth term in government in February after a fiercely contested election which the opposition say was fraudulent. Since then inflation has spun out of control with the prices of some basic commodities skyrocketing. Rice, sugar and petrol have all roughly doubled in price and the Ugandan shilling has collapsed in value against the US dollar. An exchange rate of $1 = 1500Ush two years ago has now become $1 = 2800Ush. East Africa is one part of the world where the US currency remains very strong. Some places we stayed had decided to stick with previously advertised shilling prices which hurt them relative to the current dollar exchange rate, whereas others had chalk boards scratching the shilling daily rate as it escalated upwards. Unlike Kenya or Tanzania where some payments, especially those into National Parks, must be made in US dollars, Uganda has always been proud of accepting its own currency for tourist transactions. Not any more. Some operators were openly talking of all future tours and accommodation only being in US dollars. And the moral of the story is that unless you book from overseas, when it's usually done in $US anyway, remember to bring lots of greenbacks on your travels to Africa. Applies to Rwanda too. I wish I'd brought a whole lot more instead of relying on money changers at dodgy rates and of dubious character.
Lake Bunyonyi
As an aside, I nearly got rolled trying to get some street $$ in Kigali shortly before leaving for Uganda. It was a Sunday afternoon and all the official exchange places were shut when a nice, smiling fellow offered to help me out at a decent rate. Suddenly two other men appeared and blocked my way when the changer altered the agreed price. After trying to bamboozle me with zeros, the blight of all East African currencies - even pocket calculators get confused - I burst through their cordon with my cash like a front row rugby rucker. Out of the blue a well-dressed, fluent French speaker was at my shoulder. "I have just witnessed something terrible, monsieur. These are very bad men. Now can you reward me for helping you by sponsoring me in my studies for I am in reality but an orphan of limited means?" How much should I have given him: a) $2 or b) short shrift? I chose the latter but needed a Bex and two strong coffees back in the sanctuary of Café Bourbon. It has shattered my faith in Kigali's impeccable safety reputation!
View from Byoona Amagera island retreat. It means 'the whole life'.
Back to Uganda and the upshot of the cost of living increases has been a series of Walk to Work marches, led by the opposition leader Dr Besigye, highlighting the strain Ugandan families are under. Museveni has called demonstrators terrorists and wants to fast track an anti-bail law which aims to deny 'suspected rapists, rioters and economic saboteurs' bail until they have served at least six months in prison. There seems no doubt that this authoritarian measure is directly aimed at stopping any kind of protest to his increasingly dictatorial rule.
Luxury outside our geodome
Ordinary Ugandans were very outspoken about Museveni's 25 years at the helm. "Corruption is everywhere" was heard again and again. Certainly his NRM (National Resistance Movement) party mantra of 'stability and security", as an offset to the unstable years of Obote and Amin, is wearing a bit thin. "Give someone else a go" was commonly heard. But in keeping with other African countries, retiring doesn't seem to be in the Strong Leader's Manual. In fact, the African Big Men Elders Club reads like a list from Geriatrics Anonymous. Nguema from Equatorial Guinea, dos Santos from Angola and Mugabe in Zimbabwe are all in their dotage after an average of 30 years each in power. Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt and now Gaddafi in Libya have all exited the club and a journalist in the Ugandan Daily Monitor thinks that Museveni may be positioning himself to become the new Executive Elder of this less than illustrious club. He was only number 9 in the longevity hit parade two years ago but soon he may be a chart topper!
Geodome from behind
A series of mysterious street market fires broke out during our visit, at least two in Kampala, one in Jinja and another in the east of the country. Traders argued that they were started by mafia henchmen wanting their stalls removed to allow for the establishment of new development precincts. No one was caught for these crimes, or many similar previous ones, and it is testimony to the tenacity of the people that the next day, in all cases, they were back at their market locations rebuilding their flimsy stalls to start all over again despite losing billions of shillings worth of goods, without any kind of insurance cover.
View from our veranda across Lake Bunyonyi
It's a tough life by any measure in Uganda and it was natural to compare it with Rwanda. Judged by the number of motor vehicles Uganda is way ahead in the development stakes. From the stare factor perspective it also wins hands down. By that I mean there is a lot less of it! Ugandans are definitely more used to seeing white people around. When it comes to shoes, Rwanda wins. There is a law forbidding bare feet in the streets whereas nearly all Ugandan children in rural areas are shoeless. On the litter front, it's another win for Rwanda. Even Ugandans who had never been to Rwanda had heard how clean it was. This is certainly both a triumph for the banning of plastic bags and for the endless street and courtyard sweeping that goes on. On prices, however, Uganda is the victor. Despite the escalating cost of living, food, drink, accommodation and transport are still cheaper than in Rwanda. There aren't many places in the world where you can get a large bottle of beer in a fancy hotel for just over a dollar. In fact this was one of the arguments used by Museveni supporters in criticising the Walk to Work demonstrators - that things are a lot less expensive in Uganda than in Rwanda and you don't see people protesting there. On the friendliness barometer I'd like to call it an honourable draw. People are pretty welcoming in both countries. But I think the Ugandan kids may win with their chorused chanting of 'HOW...ARE...YOU' as you pass grinning gaggles of them by the roadside.

P.S. If you don't want to use the crowded minibus taxis (as in Kenya sometimes called matatus) to get around you can take motor scooters known as boda boda. Unlike safety conscious Rwanda, however, helmets are not compulsory, nor is one provided for the passenger. The word boda boda has a very interesting etymology. It turns out that in the early days of motorised transport between Kenya and Uganda, crossings between the two countries were known as going 'border to border' and one of the means of transport became a modified new word.
Inside the geodome