I rise from my cramped slumber as the pilot announces that we are ten minutes from landing at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda. Just as I glance out the double-paned window, the plane descends through the heavy cloud cover to reveal small scattered islands sitting unobtrusively on perfectly still waters. Ah – Lake Victoria. The man next to me, in a Ugandan football shirt that would become so recognisable by the end of my trip, leans aggressively across me, intently taking in the preliminary sights of what I assumed to be his homeland while gently muttering his approval. I do not acknowledge his unsubtle invasion of my personal space, as my nervous attempts to start a conversation earlier in the flight had been met with barely concealed disregard. So much for my plan to tell this travel story through conversations, I remember thinking – when forced to sit next to one of the strangers that were meant to star in my new blog concept, I could not even muster up the persistence to discover his name.
OK, I thought, it wasn’t the end of the world. Maybe I could chat to whomever was meant to pick me up from the airport, and start my story from there. In the meantime, I gazed back out the window, my personal space restored. Signs of human life began appearing on Lake Victoria in the form of boats drifting lazily across glinting waters. The plane continued to rattle on towards what I hoped to be a stretch of land big enough to hold a runway and indeed an international airport – it was admittedly unnerving to be heading closer and closer to the ground despite only being able to see water below. Suddenly, to my relief, Uganda appears. The runway, as it happens, is literally on the edge of Lake Victoria. Just before the plane touches down I am able to see plush greenery in the distance, intersected by blood orange dirt roads dotted with locals on rattling bicycles.
Having come from Cape Town International Airport with a stopover at OR Tambo in Johannesburg, I am astonished at how small Entebbe International Airport is; it is dwarfed by the large planes that stand in front of it. We park as the light slowly starts to diminish, although the man in the Ugandan football shirt is already on his feet, pulling his bags out of the overhead locker. I look out the window once more – men in yellow and orange lumo vests have appeared, placing down comparably dull orange cones in seemingly arbitrary places. More men arrive, and they form an organised train to offload luggage from the plane.
As I step out the cabin doors, the first thing that hits me is the stifling mugginess of the air. I had just left cold, wet South Africa, so this intense heaviness is unfamiliar. The man in the Ugandan football shirt is already out of sight; I do not see him again, though I would see that shirt a hundred more times. Yet more men in lumo vests arrive, so much so that all they can do is stand in groups and chatter amongst themselves. We are loaded in buses and whisked off on a journey that lasts less than a minute, such is size of the airport. On the way, we pass an ordinary door that boasts ‘VIP Entrance,’ though we are not taken through it.
The line for non-East African citizens, otherwise known as the VISA line, is almost entirely white, while the East African-resident line is considerably shorter and darker. Signs around the airport boldly exclaim Uganda to be the ‘Pearl of Africa,’ while the following hashtags are humourously displayed underneath: ‘#LovingthePearlofAfrica,’ ‘#ExploringthePearlofAfrica,’ ‘#LaidBackinthePearlofAfrica,’ ‘#GottaLovethePearlofAfrica.’ At the front of the VISA line, a Ugandan immigration officer lounges against a pillar, scrolling on her Nokia smartphone, occasionally looking up to encourage the line along. As I get to the front, I subtly glance over her shoulder to find that she is playing Candy Crush. I never understood the obsession with that game…
Having paid $50 dollars for my VISA and retrieved my luggage at baggage claim, I look for the arrivals hall, where I was told there would be a driver with my name on a placard waiting for me. It turns out there is no arrival hall – you just walk out the airport. It is dark by this point, and I am one of the last in the eerily quiet building. I walk outside, eager to experience the novelty of a stranger holding a piece of cardboard with my name on it.
Immediately, and in hindsight somewhat predictably, I am immediately accosted by a number of taxi drivers. I am, after all, a white man laden with luggage and all by himself. I manage to slip past most of them, desperately scanning the placards for some version of my often misspelt name. 10 seconds pass, all eyes on me. 30 seconds, a minute. I can’t find my name anywhere, and as more time passes I am once more surrounded by calls of “50 dollar, 50 dollar, anywhere in Kampala. Come with me my man.” I start to panic slightly, unsure of who to choose but sure that I would get ripped off anyway. The muggy air gets ever heavier, and a bead of sweat slides anxiously down my cheek.
Suddenly, I spot a woman, the only person sitting down, holding a placard that says ‘Commonwealth Resort Munyonyo’ – it is the resort at which I am staying. The woman smiles and beckons me over, recognising the crazed rush in the eyes of a scared white boy.
“Where are you going to, my son?” She enquires kindly. “I am going to that resort,” I stammer, pointing repeatedly at her sign. “I’m with the 4th Institute for African Transitional Justice – they said someone would be here to pick me up.” “Ah, I see,” she smiles. “The bus for that Institute left a while ago. But I represent the resort, and I’ll tell you what – I will organise a safe taxi for you at a fair price to take you to the resort, then all you must do is get a receipt for the journey and the people from the Institute will pay you back.”
I splutter my thanks, significantly calmer as the other taxi drivers realise that I am now a taken man. She calls over a man from behind her, who emerges out of the dark and smiles at me, taking the luggage from my hands.
“Hello my man, what is your name?” I ask, confidence restored. “Joseph,” he responds. “Come, my taxi is this way.”
Joseph is a short, stocky man in a smart shirt with a languid gait. I glance behind me as we make our way to the parking lot. Many of the taxi drivers are heading after us; business is done for the night – I represented their last chance at making some dollars on this Sunday night. The hour and a half taxi ride from Entebbe to Kampala and through to the Commonwealth Resort Munyonyo, on the edges of Lake Victoria, was one of the most fascinating and eye-opening drives I have ever encountered, mostly due to what Joseph was able to tell me about himself, his family, Uganda, and the people of this brazenly African country. The above represents a sort of self-conversation, or a conversation with myself, essentially my initial reactions and observations on Uganda. Joseph’s story will be published next week as Part II of ‘Uganda in Conversation.’