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Story and photos by Sally McKinney   February 1, 2010


Togo boy beside Taberma castle


Unable to sleep, I stare out at darkness as the plane hurtles through Sudan airspace. Around me, others are slumping over under airline blankets, trying to rest. A young boy cries.

On an earlier trip to Africa, I’d gone shopping in a Togo fetish market. Stalked a bull elephant with a camera. Crossed a lake by dugout canoe to watch voodoo under the trees.

On the outside, I’m a nice older lady on the Amsterdam-Entebbe flight. On the inside, I’m still an 11-year-old girl who’s keen to explore.

Clearly, Uganda offers grand adventures. Dozens of tribes speak exotic languages. Gorillas wander about in mountain forests. There are ten kinds of monkeys, more than 1,000 species of birds. Yet, I’m travelling to Kampala to hear lectures, attend workshops, sit on a panel. I’m going to a conference!

My biggest challenge: finding ways to experience Uganda, around the edges of the core convention, before flying home.

Outside the terminal, I drag rolling cases over a bumpy walkway. Masses of people are milling around in darkness, waiting for loved ones, holding up signs. Sweating in the tropic heat, dehydrated, unable to buy water—and still wearing my chill-chasing jacket—I eventually find a driver with an IIPT conference sign.

Boy beside Taberma castle in upcountry Togo

Because I’m representing a non-profit organization, I’ve chosen a cheap African hotel in downtown Kampala. However, the late-night scene at Tourist Hotel—and my fatigue, prompt paranoia. On one side of the doorway stand two slim women in stage makeup, skimpy skirts and high heels. Are they prostitutes?  High-fashion models? Or girls who dress up for their boyfriends? On the other side of the doorway an old man in rumpled clothes, lies on the sidewalk, sleeping.

  Kampala market   Togo voodoo dance   Togo voodoo dance  
Kampala Market
Audience watches Togo voodoo dance

Voodoo dancing in Togo


Upstairs, the hotel staff all speak English—Uganda’s official language—with various tribal accents. A bellman leads me to a small room with a twin bed and I close and lock the door.

  Kampala market  

Each morning, jangly noises echo upward through a transom in the bathroom.

After breakfast, I take a notebook with questions to the reception desk. Perhaps I can ride a boda-boda  (motorcycle taxi) during the commute to the conference hotel. Not a good idea, the receptionist says, they’re not really safe, especially during rush hour.

Behind the reception desk, an extra-wide window, open to catch the breeze, overlooks the sprawling marketplace. Motorcycle engines roar. Tradesmen haul baskets, buckets, bananas, and hand tools. Truck horns honk; people call to each other in tribal languages. Brakes screech as drivers nearly miss slow-walking pedestrians.

It seems wise to let both hotels select the taxis. A bellman leans out the window to yell at the taxi driver who comes up the stairs. We’re introduced, and soon on our way.

Tropical Kampala has grown across several green hills north of Lake Victoria. The  conference takes place in an upscale, urban resort under tight security. Before I can enter the property—lavishly landscaped with fountains and flowers—the taxi halts for inspecton at the gate. At the doorway of the conference centre, my photo ID allows me to pass through a scanner, while a guard examines contents of my briefcase.

Kampala Market

The delegates seated around me have come from 30-some countries to support “sustainable tourism development, peace, and reconciliation on the African continent.” The IIPT (International Institute for Peace Through Tourism) leaders give welcome speeches. The keynote speaker has been delayed--so has the luncheon. Jet-lagged, my mind wandering, I fidget in my seat, sipping bottled water, and wondering why I’ve come.

Then I hear drums! Ugandans in bright clothing come prancing, drumming and dancing from four corners of the hall. Lusty men who stomp and shout are shaking dried gourds. Busty women in tight T-shirts rock to the drum beats while plumes of their hair bob like dark bird tails.

Each day I commute to the Kampala Serena Hotel and Conference Centre. There I blend in with a diverse crowd. The lunch buffet offers local dishes like matooke with ground-nut sauce. It’s a pleasure to meet educated Africans taking part in discussions and workshops. They are not the stereotype.

Each evening at Tourist Hotel, I’m a pale-faced older lady who doesn’t blend in. Dark-faced local people—men in white shirts and slacks, women in flowery dresses—join hotel guests in the dining room. One night, I try the Italian dishes; another, I sample the braised goat.

  Kampala market  
Kampala Market

Tourist Hotel, run by Speke Group Hotels, advises me to pay cash: a lower rate for me, better cash flow for them. Mid-week, a taxi driver takes me to an ATM, but I don’t like the situation.The ATM kiosk is somewhere behind an eight-foot wall; the few scattered lights cast very long shadows. It doesn’t look safe to go where the driver can’t see me, so he finds an escort. The uniformed policeman who walks with me dangles a rifle from one shoulder. He stands outside the kiosk while the ATM spits out Uganda shillings and I stuff them into my purse. The taxi whisks me back to the hotel, but I don’t truly relax until I give the cash to reception, then head for the bar and a G & T.

  Uganda Wildlife Education Centre2  

Mid-week, the IIPT conference has organized day tours. During a fast guided walk through the crowded city centre marketplace, three student volunteers guard my flanks. I hold a camera with both hands, having left my purse in a safe place. Once, when I fall behind taking a picture, unseen hands grope my pockets. Fortunately, I’m carrying no money at all.

The driver lets us out at Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC) in Entebbe. The facility houses species from the country’s ten national parks and resembles an old-fashioned zoo. We stroll past black rhinos, storks, crocodiles and shoe bills. Chimpanzees have their own island. A fenced-in lion naps on a hillock.

While the tour guide lectures about tortoises, I notice a man with a notebook.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“I want only to see birds,” he replies. So far that morning, Geofrey has spotted nearly 20 species.

Direction signs at UWEC facillity in Entebbe, Uganda

The tour group had walked past black and white colobus monkeys, but I had not looked up in the trees. Geofrey the bird-watcher invites me to see the monkeys, so we slip away from the group, and go back. Above us, black monkeys with white side stripes and tails are leaping like aerialists. But Geofrey, who looks surprisingly young to be a Tanzanian delegate, is not really impressed.

“We have lots of these back home,” he explains.

UWEC gives sanctuary to an array of species and helps injured animals recover.

I learned that a fifteen-foot rock python—which is not on display—had been found at a beach resort and abused by its captors, without being killed.The UWEC staff treated the reptile’s injuries and has been taking care of it while it heals.


Where snakes are concerned, I have a phobia. Before leaving UWEC, I notice a man in a hallway holding a large bag. Visitors stand around the man, gawking.

“See, it won’t hurt you,” the man says as he allows a three-and-a-half- foot python to escape from the bag. Eager to avoid the snake, I quickly join children playing with black-faced vervet monkeys on the grass.

The gala conference farewell dinner takes place under open white tents on the Kampala Serena grounds. Who knew that such a serious crowd (academics, tourism officials, tour company executives, non-profit volunteers) could be such party people? Wine, beer and conversation flow at the white-draped tables.

  Togo boats  
Women, children and boats in Togo

Annet Nandujja and The Planets sing and play Uganda roots music. The vocal pattern is call and response; musicians tap intricate rhythms on traditional hand drums. Soon dozens of guests begin dancing freestyle on the lawn. Sweaty men throw jackets onto chair backs. Urban women kick off high heels to dance barefoot with Africans wearing shoes.  One smiling woman – elegant in a modern African print dress and matching head wrap-- shakes her large body with surprising grace. Breathless, I rest for awhile, and sip another drink.

While I wait in a long line for dessert, Geofrey, the bird-watcher from Tanzania, comes dancing toward me. Clearly, Uganda drums have cast their spell. Laughing, we each show off our wildest steps, and the line moves slowly forward.

  Village beside Lake Victoria   Boats on Lake Victoria shore  
Village beside Lake Victoria in Uganda
Bird and boats on the shore of Lake Victoria

To learn more about Uganda:

Recommended guidebook: Uganda: the Bradt Travel Guide by Philip Briggs  

More about two Kampala hotels: Kampala Serena Resort and Conference Centre --decor was inspired by rivers, lakes, and lush vegetation --very expensive  

Tourist Hotel --a well-run budget hotel with city centre location --staff was very helpful in many ways  

UWEC (Uganda Wildlife Education Centre) --located in Entebbe (near international airport) --provides an overview of Uganda wildlife for people unable to see more of the country  

Uganda Wildlife Authority --conservation agency working to transform Uganda into an eco-destination --has an office in Kampala or  

Ndere Centre --in Kampala --a cultural entertainment centre with a mid-week Afro-jazz performance  

Copyright 2010 by Sally McKinney

Sally McKinney Travel journalist/author Member: SATW, TJG, ITWA Web site:, Contact:





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