How we found sanitary pads on the way to the Congo

Rabson, talking to us on Lake Bunyonyi

As I explained in my last post, Steve and I made this trek to Africa because of the Ugandan grannies. But after flying here via Qatar (and stopping there for three nights), the granny research consumed only four days. It seemed a shame to come halfway around the world, then turn around and go home after such a short time. Also, another adventure called to us.

Several years ago, Steve and I became aware of the plight of the bonobo (along with chimpanzees, Homo sapiens’ closest relative left on earth). There’s a bonobo sanctuary in the heart of Africa that is doing great work for this crucially important but highly threatened species. After visiting the grandmother project, Steve and I wanted to visit that sanctuary.

This isn’t easy. Lola Ya Bonobo (literally “Paradise for Bonobos”) is located outside the city of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The second largest country in Africa, the DRC is also one of the most tragic. It’s ridiculously rich in resources, mineral and physical, yet it’s one of the poorest countries in the world, with one of the bloodiest histories. It does not welcome tourists. As far as I could make out, it has no tourist industry. To go there, someone has to invite you, the invitation has to be approved by multiple ministries in the Congolese capital, and you have to send your passport to the DRC’s embassy in Washington DC to receive the crucial stamp.

Here’s the one in my passport, acquired after Lola Ya Bonobo invited us and all the bureaucratic hoops were jumped through.

Transportation options are limited, but the Rwandan airline does fly to Kinshasa nonstop from the capital of Rwanda, Kigali. The flight is only two and a half hours long, and Rwandair has an excellent reputation. The only problem (for us) was that this flight only operates a couple of times of week. Steve and I couldn’t get to Kigali from Nyaka (the Ugandan village where the granny program is based) on Sunday, and the next nonstop wasn’t until Wednesday (i.e. tomorrow).

Happily what initially looked like an irritating delay turned out to be a pleasure. I learned that we could be driven from Nyaka to Kigali via the site of Uganda’s most beautiful lake, Lake Bunyonyi. We planned to hole up there for two nights, review the work we’d done in Nyaka, and write about it. But yesterday morning, we couldn’t resist spending a few hours in a boat on the lake.

For $20 a person, the hotel where we were staying arranged for a motorboat, a guy to drive it, and a soft-spoken 23-year-old guide named Rabson. Rabson looked very young, but he’s been guiding for about three years, and I quickly found him to be quick-witted, conscientious, and knowledgeable.

The morning had started off a little drizzly, but as we putted along, the sky cleared. Lake Bunyonyi is the deepest lake in Uganda, and it’s filled with 29 islands, most uninhabited. It has no dangerous animals like crocodiles or hippos, and almost no fish.

Only tiny ones like these, skewered for sale at the local market.

The islands create a landscape that reminded me a bit of the New Zealand fiordlands. But the steep hillsides surrounding the water are an intense tropical green, dotted with banana groves. People swim in the lake, and it provides drinking water to the local villagers.

As in so much of Africa, kids were gathering it here.

Rabson loves birds, and he pointed out many interesting specimens to us, including these.

A pied kingfisher
Uganda’s national bird, the grey crowned crane

He recounted the history of some of the islands. Then he began talking about something that startled me: namely, how most kids in Uganda reach puberty without knowing anything about menstruation.

When girls suddenly begin to bleed, it shocks and horrifies their classmates. Girls have no access to sanitary pads, so they use torn-up t-shirts or leaves or other crude substitutes for sanitary pads that sometimes trigger infections. But Rabson had met someone who was trying to do something to change that and he wanted to take us to meet her.

Steve and I had seen so many African marketplaces over the past few days, I wasn’t dying to see another, but we held our tongues. We sensed it was important to Rabson to share this.

Our boatman pulled up to a dock on the mainland. We disembarked and walked into the jumble of stalls and food sellers that takes shape there every Monday and Friday. We followed Rabson up the dirt path to a compact wooden shack, where a friendly face beamed at us from a window, welcoming us. Rabson pointed out the poster on the front of the building, explaining the project, then his friend Harriet Rwosa stepped out and invited us inside.

If someone told me Harriet was educated in England, I would have believed them; her English is excellent, an ebullient flood of words. But she’s lived all her life in this village. We learned that she’s 27 and married. But she only went through the local high school. Although she yearned to continue on at a university, her parents lacked the money to send her. Like most girls, in her school years Harriet had experienced menstruation as a curse. Every month it kept her out of class, causing her to to fall behind her male peers, a new experience for her. Time had passed, and somehow she’d gotten the idea to design and market cheap, reusable sanitary pads that would enable girls to continue their education, even while menstruating. About a year and a half ago, she’d made her first pads on a little foot-powered Singer sewing machine, and she had marshaled the funds to create a little craft shop to support the purchase of materials to make more pads. Some were lined with a soft toweling. For others Harriet uses a local fabric that resembles flannel. It costs more, she told us, but it’s also more absorbent.

For $10, you can buy 3 pads for a girl. I gave her $20.

As inspiring as Harriet was, I felt equally moved by Rabson, who believes in what Harriet is doing and is trying to help any way he can. As we walked back to the motorboat, he told us he had been bird-watching on one of the bigger islands when he happened to meet Harriet, there to pass out pads at the island high school. She told him about the project, and Rabson immediately understood its importance. One day when he was in the fifth grade of primary school, he had shared a bench with a 13-year-old girl. When she stood up at the end of class, blood stained her clothing and the bench. Today Rabson mimes the reaction of the other kids; their shock at the sight of this frightening blood. They jeered, hooted, cruelly mocked their classmate. She was so mortified and humiliated, she never came back to school. Rabson says not long after this incident, she was married and had a child, but her husband later left her. Her life was ruined for lack of a sanitary pad, something that Rabson still clearly finds appalling today.

He disapproves of giving out free condoms, without also handing out pads to girls. Having sex is something you choose, he declared. But you don’t have a choice about menstruating.

This is true. Hearing Ugandan 20-somethings testify to it, seeing some moved to action by it, inspired me and touched my heart. It made me wish I could return to make a documentary about passionate, energetic Harriet and the lives she’s already changing.

I almost certainly won’t have a chance to do that; it’s not my talent. But I’m grateful to be able to write about her here. I’m thrilled to be spending the night in a really nice hotel in central Kigali, overlooking the Hotel Mille Collines (the inspiration for the cinematic Hotel Rwanda.) I’m happy to have a good fast internet connection to publish this post. In just a few hours, we’ll take that flight to the Congo, where it’s unlikely we’ll have much in the way of WiFi or phone service. But I plan to write every day about our experience in the bonobo sanctuary, and I’ll post the results as soon as possible.

Ugandan grannies: better than any tourist attraction?

Can you spot the San Diegans amongst the valiant Ugandan grannies?

The world is a big place, and Steve and I hunger to see as much of it as possible before we die. That’s why we rarely go back after an initial visit to most countries outside North America. The list of places we’ve traveled to repeatedly has been short: France, Italy, Japan. I’m thinking, however, that I need to add Uganda.

Before our first trip here, in 2013, I would have bet it would be our only one. That was our first (and I would have predicted only ever) visit to East Africa. In the course of it we also swept through Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya. But just a few months before we went, something extra got tacked on.

We have a close friend, Leigh Fenly, who in 2006 co-founded a San Diego organization called Women’s Empowerment (WE) International. Its goal is to improve the lives of some of the poorest women in the world. In the spring of 2013, WE had been approached by a group with a project in southwestern Uganda that was providing tiny but invaluable loans to older women who were raising grandchildren orphaned by AIDS. Amazingly, Steve’s and my itinerary would be taking us not far from Nyaka (the central village), and we managed to adjust it to allow for a one-day visit. We came away so moved and impressed that WE began a partnership early in 2014 with the Nyaka AIDS Orphans Foundation’s granny-group project.

Steve and I also agreed to be the liaisons between the San Diego folks and the Ugandans, a job we’ve continued to fill ever since. In that role, we returned to Nyaka accompanied by another WE member in 2017, and our current travels (this time with 6 WE leaders in tow) were driven by the desire to go back for another on-the-ground assessment of how the Ugandan “micro finance” project has been playing out.

We’ve been dazzled. In our two days in the field, the 8 of us interviewed more than a dozen individual grandmothers, learning about what they’ve done with the loans they’ve received from their groups. We also met with two large granny groups located near the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (home to some of the last mountain gorillas in the world).

One of the groups we visited has developed a robust business making handicrafts and selling them to the foreigners who come for the gorilla tracking.

Progress that was already starting to be evident three years ago has continued and seems to be accelerating.

For example, the first one-year loan ever granted (back around 2007) to one of the two groups we visited Saturday was for 200,000 Ugandan shillings — about $75. The group then made tiny loans — the equivalent of $5 to $10 — to individual members. Each woman would have the money for three months, then she would have to pay it back, along with about 15% interest. With so little money, a granny might only be able to buy a chicken or two. But she could hatch some of the eggs, sell others, and come away with a bit of extra cash — money that more often than not she would use to pay her grandkids’ school fees.

Over the last six years, as WE has donated money raised in San Diego, the Nyakans’ central revolving fund has grown from just $7,000 to almost $250,000 (including profits from the interest on the group loans and about $175,000 from WE). That’s meant granny groups have been able to receive bigger and bigger annual loans. The group that began with a $75 loan now has a loan of more than $4000.

Virtually all the grannies grow crops that their families eat, as shown here by the hands.

Grannies with bigger ideas have been able to get bigger and bigger loans to help them realize their dreams. Take Meleth, for example. She’s 52, currently raising 6 grandchildren (one disabled).

Meleth at the counter in her salon/beauty product store

She joined her granny group just a few years ago and has since become its treasurer. She’s gotten two substantial loans, first one for the equivalent of about $82, then another for almost $200. She’s used that money to build up a beauty salon that would be respectable even by Kampala standards. She’s installed a hair dryer and a wash basin; has diversified into providing decorations for weddings and other celebrations, as well as catering. She told us she currently serves 25-30 clients during her typical six-day week. (A Seventh-Day Adventist, she closes Saturdays.)

Because of her loan money, 54-year-old Robinah started a restaurant that she estimates feeds 40-50 customers a day. Business is good, but she thinks it would be even better if she could buy a refrigerator and sell cold drinks. (That would cost between 1 and 1.5 million shillings, about $275-$400.)


Many grannies still do simpler things: acquire goats or chickens or pigs; hire help to grow more cash crops like coffee. We met 65-year-old Ketty Turiyatunga at the Friday market in the little village of Nyamirama. She was filling baskets with sweet potatoes that she hoped to sell for about a dollar. Her loan was for less than $14, but she seemed happy to have it.

Margaret Tumuhimbise, 67, has a small loan too, but she uses it to buy products like tomatoes to supplement the pineapples, sweet bananas, and maize she grows and sells at a stand in the local market.

Margaret currently cares for 4 grandchildren and a great-grandchild, whom she’s holding in this photo.

Note the uniform Margaret is wearing. On our first visit, no grandmothers had uniforms, but by 2017, one large group had had some made. Since then more and more groups, maybe 60% of the 10,000 grandmothers who are currently Nyaka granny-group members, have used their profits to buy the distinctive outfits. They wear them with pride. Folks respect and admire and even envy them now, whereas just a few years ago, they were despised for being dirty and poor and old and bad-smelling. Now they all have soap and toothbrushes. Now they have hope they won’t ever have to beg again.

The Nyaka group’s leaders are talking about getting another 10,000 grandmothers organized into groups that will receive loan money. They envision doing this within just a few years. Some dream of expanding still further, going country-wide.

I have to confess that Steve and I were skeptical seven years ago. Billions have gone into aid for Africa over the course of our lives, and much of that money has been squandered. But, started by a Ugandan, run by Ugandans, decentralized and shaped by leadership at the village level, this program looks like success to us. Even if Uganda didn’t have any great natural beauty and touristic pleasures, I might be tempted to return some day to see if the human thrills continue.

As in the past, the granny group members greeted us with joyous dancing. This is an electrifying experience.
The village kids look on, curious and somewhat amazed.

On the road in Uganda

When you drive west from Kampala along the Masaka Road, heading in the general direction of Rwanda and the Congo, about two hours outside the Ugandan capital you cross the equator. I’ve done this twice, and both times it’s been a jolly experience.The Ugandans have erected circular structures on both sides of the highway, to mark the invisible line that divides the northern hemisphere from the southern one. Both Africans and visitors from other continents get a kick out of standing with one foot on each side of the line. Folks queue up to get their pictures taken.You can buy coffee or a snack or a host of souvenirs.

For less than $5, I got this table mat, made from bottle caps that have been flattened, covered with cloth, and stitched together.

For a small fee, you can get a demonstration of the alleged Coriolus effect.

It involves pouring water down a drain and watching it swirl down in different directions on each side of the line. But Steve whispered to me that this was hokum.

And whether it’s true of not, you can get a certificate attesting you have witnessed it in person.

Steve and I did not come to Uganda for any of this. We’re not here as tourists nor as religious missionaries, though we are on something of a mission. For years, we’ve been enthusiastic members of a San Diego-based group called Women’s Empowerment (WE). Founded about 14 years ago by two friends of ours, it is dedicated to raising funds to help impoverished women, primarily through a variety of “micro-loan” programs. Seven years ago Steve and I checked out a Uganda organization with which WE subsequently became partners. Since then, we’ve served as the liaisons between the San Diegans and the Africans. We returned in 2017 to see firsthand how the program was developing. Now we’ve returned for another close-up look, this time with six other WE members accompanying us.

The hardworking crew in Kampala.

Yesterday we had a great meeting in Kampala with the Uganda organization’s administrators who are based there. But the group’s main work takes place in and around the village of Nyaka, in the far southwestern corner of the country. We’ll spend 8-10 hours on the road today getting there. Then we’ll be traveling around visiting a number of the grandmother groups that are the primary beneficiaries of the loan program. I doubt that I’ll have any time for blogging until Sunday, when we’ll depart for the next phase of our adventure.

That will take place south of the equator. (The next time we cross that line we’ll be airborne, flying home.)

Don’t try to get to Africa this way

It’s not the easiest thing to get from San Diego to anywhere in Africa. But this time Steve and I appear to be doing it the hard way. The irony is, it seemed to start so well.

We had scored inexpensive tickets traveling on Alaska Airlines from San Diego to Boston, and then continuing on Qatar Airways to Doha, the capital of Qatar. These tickets would enable us to stay in Doha (a place we’ve never visited before) for three nights before continuing on to Entebbe in Uganda.

The first flight was at 9:50 am and we were inside the terminal by 7:44. We had our boarding passes by 8, and the signs all said we’d be on time. Outside, the sun gleamed off the plane parked at our gate. We went for coffee and doughnuts and returned around boarding time, when the first creepy thing happened: a tug began pushing “our” plane away from the gate. “Wait, stop!” I wanted to shout. “We’re not aboard yet!”

But no one was, and a minute later, the sign changed to Delayed — first to 10:20, then 10:30, then 10:40 am. Our spirits dipped, but when we returned to the gate around 10 and saw another plane parked next to “our” jetway, they rose again. Boarding started soon after, and by 10:40, everyone was seated, ready for take-off.

The captain’s voice over the loudspeaker smashed everyone’s good mood. He sounded annoyed, not with us, but with whichever imbecilic manager had decreed that our plane was needed to fly to Lihue on the island of Kauai, a route on which Alaska is aggressively competing. Everyone and their luggage would have to get off this plane and onto some other one.

The infants on the plane (and there were a bunch of them) all began screaming, an apoplectic chorus, and many of the grownups looked almost as unhappy. I was aghast, but I wasn’t panicking. Our flight from Boston wouldn’t depart until 10:15 pm. We had been facing a long wait at Logan, so this would shorten it a bit, but not catastrophically. Then the ground crew announced that a replacement place wouldn’t arrive until after 1 pm; it wouldn’t reach Boston until around 10:30 pm.

Here’s the Alaska plane we all had to get off, to free it for a lucky Hawaii-borne group. Aloha!

Poof! went our visions of a swift easy transit to the Middle East. We could barely see the Alaska gate staff, the line of querulous customers trying to reach them was so long. I jumped on my cell phone; called Qatar’s customer service. The guy I talked with made what sounded like a intense effort to find some other path to Doha for us. But the flight from LA was leaving in three and a half hours. There were no flights, so we’d have to cover the distance on the ground in two and a half — not something we felt like gambling could be done. Other Qatar flights from other cities all were leaving earlier than the one from Boston. The guy on the phone finally told me Alaska would have to fix the problem.

It took some gal on Alaska’s International desk in Iowa almost an hour to figure something out for us. She said she could get us on a nonstop flight from San Diego to London that was leaving San Diego at 2:50 pm. Once in London, we could connect to a nonstop Qatar flight. It wouldn’t arrive in Doha until after midnight Saturday night (versus the 5:30 pm we had originally been scheduled for). But in our beggarly positions, we didn’t feel we could be picky. We searched for the British Airways check-in counters, where we would have to go to get our boarding passes.

Somehow the young lady in Iowa had gotten the time of the flight wrong. It turned out to be 6:35 pm, not 2:50. Waiting for the check-in counters to open, we considered getting Lyfted home and back, since home was the only place we could think of to nap in. (We couldn’t get into the secure part of the airport until we got our boarding passes. But we couldn’t get our passes until the BA counters opened. I’m here to tell you, the NON-secure part of San Diego’s Terminal Two has no place where any normal person would consider napping.) Reluctantly, we decided against trying to go home and then return. The likelihood of meeting up with some other problem that would keep us from catching our flight (a traffic accident? a Lyft strike?) seemed all too real. The hours dragged by. We finally got those boarding passes; moved to another gate area. I tried to rest, but sleep eluded me. More than eleven and a half hours after we’d entered the airport, our 747 lifted off from the tarmac.

I’m writing this onboard now, with about 17 hours left to go. Our connection in London is short. That might get screwed up too. But if it doesn’t, and we reach Doha, I’ll post this, maybe in the morning.

With any kind of GOOD luck, we could even still have a day and a half to see Doha’s sights. Then we’ll move on to Africa, where bigger adventures loom.

More than once, we were thankful we travel with carry-ons. (Here are our four, plus our lunch bag. Checked luggage would have significantly complicated the nightmare.

Great grannies

I’m writing this from back home in San Diego, where I’m feeling guilty that I still haven’t written about what Steve and I agree was the most remarkable experience of this most amazing trip: our visit to the village of Nyaka in western Uganda.

It wasn’t originally on our itinerary. But back in early February, I happened to be at a social gathering with Leigh Fenly, an old friend who also was the co-founder of Women’s Empowerment (WE). Based in San Diego, WE was formed to provide low-interest “microloans” to poor women to help them start or expand their small (minuscule) enterprises. In Mexico, Honduras, San Diego, and other parts of Africa, WE’s lending has helped many women improve their economic conditions and develop pride in what they can accomplish. Leigh mentioned that the organization had been approached a few months earlier by the Nyaka AIDS Foundation about lending money to some Ugandan women who are the sole support of their grandchildren, youngsters who’ve lost their parents to AIDS. Although WE had gathered information about this group from a distance, Leigh felt it would be valuable to have us check it out in person.

Grannies arriving at a meeting

It’s hard for those who haven’t traveled in the developing world to imagine how remote Nyaka is. I myself couldn’t believe the village would be so very hard to reach, when I looked at its approximate location on my Uganda map. But the map doesn’t show how mountainous the area is. Road lines neatly rendered on paper in reality are rutted dirt tracks studded with rocks and other impediments. Occasional holes help to make driving on them hellish. There are no road signs. Our Ugandan driver/guide, Robert, was born and raised in this region, but he’d never heard of Nyaka. He got us there by following rough directions from one of our contacts over the phone — and then stopping to ask bystanders for details as we homed in on our destination.

Bizarrely, Uganda’s long-time president grew up around here; why he hasn’t doled out more patronage in the form of road work is a mystery. But another former son of Nyaka has been more loyal. Jackson Kaguri was a bright boy who studied hard and won a scholarship to attend a university in Uganda’s capital, Kampala. He went to the US for graduate work and there met and married an African-American woman. They were on a trajectory to a comfortable middle-class life in Indiana, but Kaguri continued to visit his family back in Africa. His older brother had died from AIDS, and Jackson had committed to helping educate his nieces and nephews. On his first visit back with his new wife, the two were struck by the plight of the other AIDS orphans in the village. They resolved to build a school that would provide free education for at least some of the orphans. (All the “public” schools in Uganda require parents to pay fees that often are significant enough to be unaffordable.)

Kaguri subsequently published a memoir of how the school project unfolded, and one of the best things about it is how clearly it communicates his mental state. He didn’t set out to try and change the whole country. He simply wanted to build a couple of primary-level classrooms, despite his pretty much total lack for preparation for any such undertaking. But he was determined, and he did eventually get those first classrooms built. Over time, the school expanded. The need for a health-care center became clear and eventually got built The lack of clean, easily accessible water led to creation of a drinking water system for part of the village. Jackson did none of this on his own; he got help from folks both in America and Uganda. But a dozen years after that first vision of a few classrooms took shape, a remarkable amount has been accomplished.

The Nyaka Granny Project was yet another outgrowth of this work. Around 2007, the school staff began to focus on the fact that many children were suffering from malnutrition and sleep deprivation due to inadequate food, water, and shelter. Somehow, the staff found the resources to begin organizing support groups for the grandmothers struggling to raise those children — not only the few lucky enough to attend the Nyaka school, but many others whose kids are in public schools. When Steve and I finally reached Nyaka, we could scarcely believe our ears when the two program coordinators told us there are now 91 such groups, including 7,000 women providing sole support to something like 35,000 kids.

Some of the grannies with whom we met

Within short order, the reality of those numbers became clearer. After depositing our bags in the little house that’s been built (and is run by Jackson’s sister) to accommodate visitors, Martin and Godfrey (the Granny Project coordinators) led us to a nearby building where one of the groups had assembled to meet us. Dressed in their finest Sunday clothes — brightly colored and patterned dresses and wraps that left no doubt we were in Africa — the women, including one 91-year-old member, were singing and dancing. It was an infectious, boisterously joyful greeting, and it instantly won our hearts. We all gathered in a big circle under a tree. Most of the grannies sat on the ground, while we as the guests were offered chairs. Jackson and Martin introduced us, and Steve (bravely) responded to a request to explain why we were there. Then for most of the multi-hour session, we asked questions.

We took pages and pages of notes, which Steve patiently transcribed in spare moments throughout the rest of our travels. What we learned in the first group was echoed in the two others with which we met (one later that first afternoon and the other the next morning.) The grannies told us about the many benefits they’d gained from participating. First and foremost, the groups provided fellowship. It’s misleading to talk about African “villages.” For me that term conjures up some compact community in England where everyone can walk to everyone else’s home. But in rural Africa, communities are typically far-flung. While some of the grannies lived within a half-kilometer of each other, others walked two or three hours to attend the twice-monthly meetings.

Each time they attended, they paid a small amount (ranging from $.75 to $1.50) into a fund, knowing that every 15 months or so they would receive all or part (arrangements varied) of the pot collected that meeting. This simple system provides a way for the poor to save for needed items — a blanket, say, or a saucepan –instead of seeing any savings dribble away to friends or relatives needing help. The Nyaka coordinators also provided some educational programs (farming tips; AIDS prevention), and the groups gave the women a chance to share their troubles and pray together “for our homes and our families” (as one English speaker put it). Finally, a small microloan program that began in 2008 was offering some of the women a chance to borrow tiny amounts of money and pay it back within a few months at interest rates that might seem high to Westerners (3% a month), but were far more reasonable than the 10 to 20% monthly interest charged by other African lenders.

JoAnn, 52, caring for 3 grandchildren, had borrowed a little under $20 and used $7.75 to buy a piglet and the rest to build a pigsty for the animal. Jacqueline, 53, had used her $4 loan to hire someone to prepare some ground for her to plant. Her subsequent peanut and sweet-potato harvest had been good enough to help cover her grandchildren’s school fees. Maria, supporting 6 grandchildren, had combined her $19 loan with another $7.75 she’d saved and bought a goat that she bred with a neighbor’s billy. She’d sold the resulting twins and since had built her herd up to 6. When I asked if she and her grandkids drank the milk, the group burst out laughing. If she did that, someone pointed out the obvious, the baby goats would die of malnutrition.

A scene from the play

Our meetings included other light moments. The second group put on a play for us fashioned after the Biblical story of King Solomon’s trial of two women who both claimed the same infant. The actors were equipped with props that included a fake sub-machine gun fashioned from banana-tree branches. It was unforgettable. But so was the women’s response when we asked if they had any complaints about the Nyaka micro finance program.

They did indeed: there wasn’t enough money to be borrowed. They had ideas. They were willing — eager! — to muster the energy to raise piglets and goats and chickens; plant sweet potatoes, roast them, and sell them to passing travelers; sew, weave baskets, make bracelets and other handicrafts. They were confident they could pay back the money with interest. Indeed the repayment rates do approach 100%. “How many of you would borrow more money if there was more available to borrow,” I asked. Here’s how they answered:

Trekking with pygmies

Our epic gorilla trek took place Tuesday. Wednesday we met some of the people whom the gorillas displaced. Of course, it wasn’t the gorillas who did it, but about 20 years ago, the Ugandan government ordered all the pygmies to move out of the forests that had been their home for millennia. The last of the hunter-gatherers in this part of the world, the Batwa (as they call themselves; pygmy is the word the English applied to them) had always co-existed with the forest creatures. But as an exploding human population drove more and more people to cut down forests and farm, and the once boundless rainforest was reduced to mere islands, it was felt that the Batwa were putting too much pressure on what was left. So they were kicked out and forced onto the African equivalent of reservations. It was probably good for the gorillas and other forest animals and good for the non-Batwa Ugandans. Gorilla tourism is an economic engine, benefitting many ordinary folks. But it’s been devastating for the remaining Batwa.

One effort intended to help them preserve some remnant of their culture (and earn money) has been the creation of what’s called the Batwa Trail. This is what S and I signed up for.After a bit of a muddle over where we would start (there are two trail heads), we all assembled at the one withIn Mugahinga National Park. We set off with a ranger/translator (Benjamin), the two standard AK47-toting guards, and four Batwa ranging in age from 36 to 51. They had all grown up in this non-materialist culture (where you built your home from sticks and leaves and inhabited it for just a few months before moving on with just what you could carry.)

They all wore clothes made of animal-skins. Two of the four carried weapons (a spear and bow and arrow). To my surprise, they weren’t terribly small — maybe in the low 5-foot range. They led us briskly down a trail strewn with fresh-looking Cape Buffalo dung. I found myself thinking that it would be exciting to encounter one (and have one of the guards scare it away!) But the most menacing creatures we saw were legions of safari (aka fire) ants. We both avoided being bitten by any, thanks to the solicitous warnings of the Batwa.

They proved even better at entertaining us. Steven, the leader, had enormous presence, and in the course of frequent stops, he and the other fellows explained the use of various plants both for sustenance and medicine. Much more unexpected (and entertaining) was the way his comrades acted out various scenarios from their former life: setting a snare (and accidentally getting caught in it – har-har!); using a dog bedecked with bells (played by one of the guys) to catch a wild animals (played by a carved wooden hippo). “They’re like the Marx Brothers!” Steve whispered to me at one point.

The grand finale took us into a huge underground lava tube where the Batwa king used to hang out and his subjects stored crops plundered from surrounding farms. Normally, Batwa ladies hidden in the cave’s inky inner recesses surprise visitors by singing, softly at first and then building to a rousing conclusion. But they weren’t there on this particular day; someone said something about their having to go get food instead. I was a little disappointed, but 6 ladies were assembled when we emerged from the cave and they gave us at least a taste of what we had missed.

The guys and we also had shared our own magic moment a little earlier, when we had stopped in a clearing. They gave us a wildly animated demonstration of how they started fires, using two sticks. Then we all flopped down in an ant-free patch of ground to eat our picnic lunches. Steve and I asked lots of questions, and they seemed happy to answer. Then it occurred to me that they might enjoy hearing how we had learned about them. Benjamin translated as I described driving in my car one day several months ago and listening to an NPR reporter who also had experienced the Batwa Trail. Intrigued, I had googled them when I got home. What I read had made me resolve to find them. We all laughed at the crazy connections. “You’re famous!” I told them. Their eyes shone. I promised to tell other people about them, and they liked that a lot.


Gorilla country

When we got back to the Uganda Wildlife Authority office Tuesday afternoon (6/5), after a grueling but satisfying 7 hours of tracking 14 of the remaining 700 mountain gorillas left in the world, one of our ranger/guides conducted a brief, corny ceremony in which she read each of our names and handed out ornate gorilla-tracking certificates. Steve and I and the 50-year-old Dutchman and his lanky 18-year-old son had finished the trek earlier than the 4 Sri Lankans who were the other members of our party. We stood up and applauded each other as we received our certificates. It was cute. Then the Dutchman spoke, and somewhat to my surprise, I almost burst into tears. He thanked the guides not only for doing such a good job in leading us to the gorillas, but also for the work they’re doing to preserve this place: the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It is one of the rarest and most beautiful places on earth, and having the chance to walk in it was profoundly moving.

For Steve and me, the chance to see the forest was at least half of what made the day so spectacular. Probably for more folks, it’s all about the gorillas. I’ve never been ga-ga about them; never found them as enchanting, for example, as bonobos (pygmy chimps) or chimpanzees. But even for us, the chance to see these animals in the wild was intoxicating enough to make us want to pay for the permits required of anyone tracking them. Those permits not only are expensive, but securing them was daunting. I wired off the (non-refundable!) money for ours back in February, and then the date was set in stone. Had anything gone wrong, we simply would have been out of luck. Once we’d gotten ourselves to this distant (southwesternmost) corner of Uganda, the challenge was hardly over.

Here’s the way the tracking works: mountain gorillas live in two of Uganda’s national parks, but Bwindi has the largest concentration (about 300). They live in family groups, and about 10 of those have been habituated to humans. But only four of the 10 can be visited by tourists (I guess only scientists get access to the others). Moreover only 8 tourists are allowed in any group at a time, and they can only spend one hour with the troupe. Which means that — at most — 32 tourists may interact with Bwindi’s gorillas on any given day — IF they find the gorillas at all.

In our case, we were reasonably confident we’d find them. We’d been assigned to the Nkuringo family — 14 animals (8 male and 4 female), one of the troupes most accustomed to humans, and one with a reputation for being tolerant and even curious about visitors. I think we were designated to track them partly because I got my permit so early and partly because we’re old (for once, that felt like a delicious advantage!) Still finding any troupe is never a certainty. Our lead guide (named, comically, Modern), told us once he didn’t find them till 2:30 in the afternoon; he and his group didn’t get back to the base camp till 11 p.m. (something I find almost unimaginable, given that by 7 p.m., it’s always dark in this forest, which is also home to elephants, unhabituated gorillas, jaguars, pythons, and other deadly vipers.) Modern said just 6 months ago the rains were so torrential the gorillas were virtually invisible, hiding in the underbrush. Visitors slipped in the muck; they broke bones.

At the other extreme, Modern told us he’s found the gorillas 40 minutes down the trail. In such cases, the visitors still can only spend one hour with the troupe; they never get to see the forest at all.

Steve and I were gloriously lucky. We set our alarm for 5 a.m., ate breakfast at 5:30, then set off from the Traveler’s Rest by 6. We reached the park headquarters (elevation: 6,850 feet) around 7:45, where our group assembled and was briefed. At 8:30, we departed: not only the 8 tourists in our group, but also Modern, two guards armed with AK-47s (to scare off any random elephants!) and several porters. I felt a bit like Deborah Kerr setting off with Stewart Granger in search of King Soloman’s mine’s.

The weather was cool and cloudy at first, perfect for hiking. Almost immediately, we began descending into a deep, deep valley, as green as anything I’ve seen in Ireland. Modern was communicating with two tracker-rangers who’d preceded us and gone to where the gorillas had been the day before. (They usually don’t move more than a kilometer or two per day.) Very soon, the trail become not only steep but encrusted with treacherously slippery pebbles. Over and over again, I thought about how peeved I would be if I fell off a ledge or twisted an ankle or otherwise screwed up, now that we were finally so close. Rarely have I been so grateful to have my hiking poles.

After an hour and a half of this, we turned off the path that skirts the forest, to enter Bwindi itself. If our chimp tracking in Kibale last week didn’t feel like a jungle adventure, this more than made up for it. The “impenetrable” in Bwindi’s name is no exaggeration. This is as thickly tangled, buzzing, twittering greenly amazing a place as I’ve ever seen (except perhaps courtesy of Hollywood.) Instead of pebbles underfoot, there was oozy muck. Two and a half hours after leaving the trailhead, we reached the spot where our trackers had homed in on the group. We left the muddy trail. Underfoot was springy, compressed vegetation, the like of which I’ve never walked on before.

The next hour was magical, though our first gorilla was a recalcitrant young silverback known as Stubborn. He was lying on the ground with his back to us, and he never so much as turned to look at us, despite our noisiness and the fact that we were close enough to reach out and tickle his toes. We ventured on, with the rangers directing us where to go and how to behave. Ultimately we were able to approach 12 of the 14 members of the family. Two of the smallest ones even came out into the open, cuddling and grooming each other.

I could go on, but I’m afraid only a Jane Goodall would be interested in reading much more. I’ll wrap up with just a few final observations. At one point, the number of mountain gorillas in the world had plunged to 200. It has more than tripled since then, but their future survival is far from assured. At this moment, though, they’re out there, foraging, sleeping, playing, mating, giving birth. I’m a witness, and a deeply grateful one.












Big game country

Who associates Uganda with big game? I never did. Mountain gorillas, maybe. But sweeping savannah dotted with grazing elephants and antelope? We were startled when yesterday we saw all that and more.

I had expected the day to be somewhat tedious, one in which our main objective would be to travel from our lodging near the chimpanzee forest down to the southern end of Queen Elizabeth National Park. Originally, I’d planned an itinerary that would have had us stop in the middle of the park and then enjoy a day of game driving. But an opportunity arose to be useful to Women’s Empowerment (WE) International — the San Diego-based microlending organization we’ve admired since its inception — so we jumped at it and cancelled the park day. We would only stop at the southern end to break up the long journey to Nyaka village and its grannies who were potential recipients of WE’s micro-loan funds.

The Land Cruiser carried us down from the mountains and southward, taking us across the equator (photo op!) a bit after 11. Lunch was at the tent camp adjoining a large channel between two lakes where we’d originally planned to stay. It looked lovely, and it would have been thrilling to watch the hippos come into the camp for their nightly grazing session (reportedly they don’t bother humans who don’t threaten them.) But we pushed on, and it was then that we began spotting the elephants, antelopes, cape buffalo, baboons, and monkeys.

Before making the final approach to the simple camp where we were staying, Robert surprised us by announcing we’d make a quick sweep of one area of the national park to look for lions lounging in fig trees –the most sought-after tourist attraction in this area. It was a long shot; Robert said he’d spent days on some previous trips looking for them with no success.

All lions can climb trees, he pointed out. But what makes the Ishasha area of the national park famous for its tree-climbing lions is that a few huge fig trees are scattered (widely) amidst the legions of acacia. And, unlike the short acacias, the mature fig trees grow stout horizontal branches that make wonderful resting places for lions. High off the ground, they’re well-positioned to catch a cool breeze, escape attack from the tsetse flies that infest this area, and spot the most likely direction in which dinner might lie, come the evening hunting session.

Robert had popped up the top of the Land Cruiser, and Steve and I stood up, finding it not unlike jogging through the savannah — without having to exert any more effort than that required to avoid being jounced out. We’d driven for maybe 20 minutes, and I had just muttered to Steve that I didn’t see ANY fig trees, when he retorted, “There’s one!” The path took us around a bend and up to the tree — which was occupied by three beautiful lions.

I’m sorry, but if there’s anything cuter than drowsy giant cats draped over fig branches, I don’t know what. Robert told us these were a mom and her two youngsters, male and female. They all were dozing, loose-limbed and looking so comfy I imagined if we could just get a bit closer, we’d hear the purring (assuming that lions purr.) we spent a long time drinking in the sight, while Robert shared some lion lore, asserting, for example, that they’ll never attack, as long as you’re staring in the eyes. (Conversely, you NEVER want to run.)

Finally, we pulled away, and Robert drove us to the banks of the Ishasa River, where on the far bank, the Democratic Republic of the Congo looked close enough to be hittable by someone with a good arm and a pebble. Hippos often play on these banks, but all we could see were two hippo head tops and four pairs of ears that emerged and then re-submerged in the distance.

So we pushed on to our rest stop for the night, a homely but well-tended collection of tents and “chalets” overlooking another nearby river, the Ntungwe. The only guests, we sat in an elevated pavilion, drinking in the splendid countryside and, after sunset, dining on excellent roast goat, assorted vegetables, rice, and the most delicious banana dessert I’ve ever tasted.

I slept well, though I had my earplugs in. I never heard the chomping noises or the raucous cries of young men. I only heard about them from the plump young American property manager. A recent international studies graduate, she recently took this gig after completing a 6-month stint with a Kampala-based NGO. She thought the chomping was a hippo, and commented, “It sounded close!” I was just as happy to have missed it. I prefer for my encounters with wild animals to be during the day — and for the wild animals to be exclusively non-human.



Wild chimpanzees

I could tell you that my favorite moment yesterday was watching Steve, his head lathered up in the shower of our guest cottage, singing (to the tune from South Pacific), “I’m gonna wash that chimp pee outta my hair, I’m gonna wash that chimp pee outta my hair, I’m gonna wash that chimp pee outta my hair, and send it down the drain!” But I’d be lying. It was only one highlight of many.

I understand that chimpanzees live in 6 of Uganda’s 10 national parks, but the one where Steve got his head peed on was Kibale. It boasts having one of the densest concentrations of primates in the world — not only chimps but a dozen or so other species. Moreover, our chimp-tracking guide, Bosco, made the case that Kibale provides the best opportunity in the world to interact with wild chimps. Some 1450 individuals (living in 13 areas) were counted in the last census three and a half years ago. One of the groups, containing about 120 animals, has been habituated to humans for years. As a result, 90% of the time, chimp-trackers wind up seeing what they came for.

We arrived at the park headquarters around 8. I was already in an exultant mood, thrilled to be in my first true African rainforest. It wasn’t at all steamy and jungly. It had rained in the night, and a cool mist continued to drizzle down. Along with a dozen or so other tourists, we assembled for a briefing by Bosco. Among other safety tips, he warned us not to make noises imitating the chimps. We might inadvertently make the wrong call, with negative consequences

One factor working against us was the rain, he said. Like people, chimps prefer not to sit on wet ground. But we would try our best to get as close as possible. We split into three smaller groups, and i felt happy to be in the one led by Bosco, who exuded a calm confidence.

Then we were off! We drove on little more than trails, and Bosco explained that chimp-tracking begins by trying to pinpoint where they’ve been heard. Chimpanzees are a raucous crew, and their vocalizations carry far. We stopped at one place where Bosco gathered information, then we pushed on, into an area of the rainforest where the trees at the top of the canopy reached at least 80-100 feet tall. In a clearing, we all got out, and the vehicles disappeared, taking their diesel clatter with them. In the ensuing relative silence, we listened to the insect chatter and bird calls.

And then — a hooting. Bosco motioned us down the road. He pointed to a dark shape, high overhead. It took a minute or two, but gradually, the simian form emerged. Branches shook, an arm emerged. And then more hooting, unmistakable, hair-raising. Screams, more hoots, movement.

Of all the things we saw over the course of the next two hours, nothing surprised me more than the way chimpanzees sound in the forest. The screams are the wild, deranged noises only emitted by insane humans, but there are so many other noises: hoots and whoops and booming grunts that I would have thought required electronics to achieve such amplification. The cacophony sends a clear message: these guys live near the top of the food chain. (Their only predators are the park’s leopards and an occasional lucky eagle.)

When the chimps moved, we moved, bushwacking through the undergrowth and pausing periodically to observe one thing or another overhead. We watched the apes feeding on berries, then saw a female breaking off branches, high above, to swiftly make her day nest. Bosco explained that each chimp makes a night nest too, typically making a new set of both every day (or else relining an pre-existing one.) A few minutes later, he made a comment about a chimp’s erection. “You can see his erection?” I exclaimed, incredulous. (I couldn’t see the whole damned animal, let alone his diminutive sexual member.)

But most of the fellows overhead had erections, according to Bosco, who also pointed out the reason: a female whose swollen volva so obviously invited attention that even I could see it, 200 feet away. One set of the tourists were able to watch this gal and one of the males copulate. But I missed that (easy enough; the whole interaction lasting only about 6 seconds). If short, sex for the chimpanzee ladies is frequent. They can mate up to 20 times a day. Because of the possibility of getting lucky, the males were lingering up in the trees, Bosco told us. We settled in to try and wait them out, and it was during this interval that the dousings with chimp pee occurred.

Finallly the troupe clambered down, some of the males no more than 20 feet away. We hustled after them, hoping they would finally stop to chill out on the ground, ignoring us (as apparently they commonly do around tourists.) This never happened, though, and Bosco finally announced that we needed to head back to our vehicles. Rather than feeling disappointed, I was grateful to have come as close and see as much as we had.

It was only noon. We drove to a lodge for lunch, then continued on to 3-plus hour guided hike around a swamp that’s part of an inspiring community-development project. Steve and I loved it, and ordinarily I’d be happy to report the details in depth.

But the chimp-tracking was one of the most exciting natural adventures I’ve ever head, and I’ve run on about it too much already. I can’t imagine how the gorilla-tracking will compare. But that’s 2 and a half days away. Between now and then Steve and I have another mission that promises to be both challenging and fascinating, in other ways.




On the road, Ugandan-style

I’m writing this as we jounce along over badly gouged dirt roads on our way from Kibale to Queen Elizabeth NP. It’s the third morning we’ve awakened in Uganda, and I found myself wondering: why are we here? And: why aren’t more Americans?

I think the answer to the second question is that all that most Americans know about this place, if they know anything (if they saw The Last King of Scotland or are old enough to have lived at the time of the history it recounted) is that the country endured a long spell of lunatic violence under Idi Amin, and later, devastating civil war. Also, “We have no writers!” as our driver/guide Robert pointed out yesterday over lunch. Meaning, I took it, no white foreign Afropromoters like Isaak DInesen or Beryl Markham or Ernest Hemingway to propel Uganda into the consciousness of farflung tourists.

Why Steve and I are here nonetheless is a mixed bag of reasons. We flew here using frequent flier miles, and American’s partner, British Airways, serves Entebbe. We know people who’ve been to Rwanda in recent years, and their reports made me want to go there. Uganda borders it, and as I began reading about the region, the enthusiasm expressed by recent travelers here impressed me. Now that we’ve begun to explore it, I understand why Uganda had been called the pearl of Africa. This place is a hidden gem, a lustrous surpprise, something you feel thrilled and grateful to discover.

It’s physically breathtaking, maybe the most beautiful landscape I’ve seen anywhere: rolling hills and muscular mountains, crater lakes and deep valleys, and everything so green, a hundred shades of it. Unlike the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, this land is gaudily, opulently fertile, In the last two days, we’ve passed plantations growing a half dozen varieties of bananas, but also tea and coffee, as well as farmers growing pineapple, avocados, papaya, sorghum, watermelon, corn, mangos, beans, tobacco, tomatoes, cucumbers, vanilla, melons, and more, Robert says all the beef, chicken, fish, pork, rice, flour, oil (sunflower and corn), and virtually everything else we’ve been eating or will eat during our stay here was grown in this country the size of Oregon. Mixed in with the agricultural abundance, as if the land was so potently fecund it simply couldn’t control itself, are brilliant tropical flowers that attract jewel-like butterflies and more than a thousand (!) species of tropical birds.

We drank in all these sites on the long drive Wednesday from Entebbe to the Chimpanzee Forest Guesthouse, along with the endlessly diverting pageantry of life along African roads: farmers carrying produce to tiny village markets, pilgrims converging on a religious festival, mini-buses bursting with passengers and dodging the motorscooters that serve as the taxis for urban areas. (We assumed their name — “boda-bodas” — came from the sound they make, but Robert says it sprang from their origin in Kenya, where they travel from border-to-border.) We didn’t notice any traditional billboards, but Robert pointed out that Ugandans use a cheaper alternative. Various companies pay home- and shop-owners to paint their residences with brilliant colors and announcements about their products. “Airtel,” they shriek, or “Sadolin,” and it doesn’t mean you can buy Airtel minutes or Sadolin paint there. They’re just adspace, rented for a certain period of time (and then covered over with a fresh, noncommercial coating as part of the arrangement.)

By mid-afternoon, we were deep into the country, in a more heavily forested region. At one point, Robert slowed the Land Cruiser, and it took me a beat or two to realize that the dark forms next to the side of the road were a troupe of wild olive baboons. They barely blinked as we photographed them, just a few feet away.

About the Chimpanzee Forest Guesthouse, where we stayed for two nights, let me only say that it was wonderful, with excellent food, attentive service (we were the only guests the second night), lovely gardens, and beautiful views in every direction. About that chimpanzee forest… well, that deserves a post of its own.