Since not too much happens over Easter weekend in Uganda, some friends and I went camping. By now the drive felt familiar, seven hours in a minivan passing dusty nowhere towns and fields of uncultivated papyrus. Two details unique to Uganda: cows with very large horns—I’ve forgotten the breed’s name—and phenomenal amounts of plaintains. Uganda’s national dish is matoke, mashed up plaintains. It’s bland and sticky with a slightly sour aftertaste. In every town we passed piles of plaintains in green bunches, each the size of a duffle bag. Open air trucks carried hundreds of bunches and men sitting jauntily on top of them. One truck I saw had bunches suspended below the chassis, between the wheels. At the equator we declined the opportunity to conduct an experiment. For a few thousand shillings a guy pours water through a funnel and then walks across the equator and does it again. The water drains in the opposite direction. I’ve tried this independently. It really does.
We were going to an island in Lake Bunyonyi, very close to the Rwanda border and not much farther from Congo. At merciful altitude, Lake Bunyonyi enjoys a temperate climate that reminded me of childhood summers in the Berkshires, foggy chilly mornings giving way to sunny afternoons. To the (OK, my) untrained eye most of the plants looked as if they would blend well in good ol’ northeastern deciduous forests, the odd banana patch or bamboo grove excepted. The difference is the galaxy of life. The landscape is almost obscenely green. And just about every bush flowers. Moreover there were marvelous birds and butterflies, 15-inch earthworms and an abundance of big, ugly spiders. Even the innocent-looking plants have prickers and thistles, though, so don’t touch.
We stayed at a campground run by an affable, bearded dude from Long Island. The place has a reputation for serving excellent but basic food and for catering to the tastes of Western budget travelers. This means, more or less, that it’s well supplied with beer, board games and books. The staff tolerate whining with almost divine patience.
Whether it’s a $5 a night campground or an ultra-luxe safari lodge, I’ve yet to encounter anywhere designed for white vacationers which is owned by black people. Without picking on this particular place, which was very pleasant, it fit comfortably into a familiar pattern. The owner brags about his staff and the importance of his joint in the community: paying local kids’ school fees, contributing to local development initiatives etc. At this campground, the owner said he doesn’t make a profit and earns his crust from side businesses. However, the place is still in white hands.
The staff runs the ground for months when the owner is away and the chef folds up a serviceable breakfast burrito. They’ve mastered the art of dealing with backpackerus occidentalis. (Feed, but don’t pet. Hang local crafts on the walls.) So why can’t the staff open their own place? The answer, I think, is the difficulty of finding start-up money. Even with the popularity of microfinance, loans to start slightly larger businesses are still rare.
P.S. (or perhaps S.P., Shameless Plug)
For more on African tourism check out my story in the new issue of Conde Nast Traveler, online at http://www.concierge.com/cntraveler/articles/detail?articleId=12080