I was asked by a friend to award one thing in Uganda as the “most surreal thing I had experienced so far”.
“Most surreal” in the category of Uganda is a hard award to give singly. Everything is surreal right now. But I have to start somewhere, so let’s trace back to just after I left Entebbe airport:
The drive to Kampala was overwhelming. I stared out the window wide-eyed like a baby handed to a person they don’t recognize. We were on a highway, but it was like no highway I knew.
Road rules were incomprehensible. Right-of-way seemed to be decided by arcane rules and communication that I couldn’t see or imagine.
Buildings occupied almost every linear metre of roadside. Short, squat microbusiness centres, each with at least a half dozen kiosk-sized stores. Three-storey concrete slabs in varying states of completion and repair, some windowless and others palatial. Roughshod sheet metal and wood shacks that sold everything from cellular airtime to “hotel”.
There were no concrete dividers anywhere on this highway. Micro-busses the size of a 1960’s Volkswagen van crammed in more than a dozen people, and motorcycles loaded with impossible cargo darted between and around other vehicles. Both were ever-present, frequently pulling over and crossing lanes to deposit or take on passengers.
Vinyl-wrapped steel sentinels loomed above the wheeled chaos. These billboards seemed a hundred metres tall, brandishing posters advertising the incumbent president Yoweri Museveni, brand name carbonated brown sugar water, and cell phone networks.
Nothing was clarified or comprehensible in Kampala. Intersections seemed to mean, “slow down and force your way in”. There were no crosswalks. We stayed long enough to buy cell phones, eat a late lunch, and deliver a pair of other interns to a hostel.
Darkness coated the highway to Jinja. There were no streetlights. Some of the arcane communication between vehicles became clear. High beam headlights and turn signals spoke a language, but still not one I could understand.
By then I could hardly stay awake. Nightfall, jet lag, and thousands of inexplicable sights consumed every memory of loading into what would be my home for the next six months. Bed was a mother’s embrace, cradling a child burst out crying in a stranger’s arms.