Monday, March 10, 2008

Wed 27th & Thursday 28th Feb.
Little did we know, when we set up the trip to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary last year, that the road north out of Kampala had become an utter nightmare. Last year we got to the sanctuary in less than three hours, visited a butterfly farm on the way home and had an interesting day. This year the road had more potholes and speed bumps per kilometer than a cheese grater has sharp edges and apertures all over. One stretch of 50 km took us one-and-a-half hours! The reason was not far to seek. Huge trucks have been heading back and forth, severely overloaded, on their way to the refugee camps in neighbouring Sudan. The tarmac surfaces and sub grade construction were simply not built to withstand the onslaught. The road has gone from passable to impossible in a few short months. Where reconstruction has taken place the contractors have built seriously large speed bumps every thirty metres, for long stretches of up to two kilometers. We did eventually arrive, but most of us felt that we had been through ten rounds with a heavyweight boxing champ, or at least a sadistic masseur.

The rhino at the sanctuary are the only free-ranging ones in Uganda, and we did spend time with them. Indeed for some of that time we were only about 10 metres from them. Up close and personal as it were. Sadly there are no specimens of the Northern White Rhino left in Uganda -Idi Amin's ghastly regime saw to that- and apart from a non-breeding pair at the zoo this is the only opportunity to see any rhino anywhere in Uganda.

After an overnight stay at the sanctuary, which included a wonderful supper, we headed back to Kampala by a longer but much more comfortable route. That evening Jo and I hosted everyone to a tasty South Indian meal at a restaurant appropriately named Masala Chat. Our favourite dish there is Masala Dosai, and we cannot get it anywhere in Saskatoon, so this is a great way to round out the trip, with only one day left for the students to stock up on curios, carvings, cloth and other memorabilia.

I will take them to the airport tomorrow evening (the 29th) and then Jo and I are off to Murchison Falls National Park, not worried about who may have missed the bus, or who may not have heard the information about some tropical disease and wildlife technique. We are looking forward to the break after almost four full weeks of teaching and supervision from dawn to dusk.

The computer will not be going to Murchison, but the camera will.

Tuesday 26th Feb.
At 8.30 am we boarded a long native fishing canoe and headed out for a two-hour boat ride into Lake Victoria, destination Ngamba Island. This is one of the twelve ape sanctuaries in Africa; all members of the Pan African Sanctuary Association- that cater to orphan chimps, all confiscated from poachers or their customers, that are the sad by-products of the bushmeat trade. It is a terrible fact that in order to capture one infant chimp the entire troop must be slaughtered. Bushmeat hunters will take what they can, and if there are infants they will sell them to unscrupulous buyers for additional profit. The sanctuary manager is veterinarian Dr. Lawrence Mushiga, and apart from his overall management duties he has established a strong preventive care program of health checks for the 48 chimps on the island. We are lucky enough to be at the sanctuary on a health check day, and Lawrence has arranged things in such a way that our group, divided into teams of four, get to work on one of three chimps destined for a full physical. It is very different from work on truly wild animals, but it does offer an amazing opportunity and experience as our trip heads towards its end. Apart from the health checks the students get the
chance to watch two feeding sessions and learn from the excellent staff about the fascinating social structure of the group; who is the alpha male at the moment, who can imitate a human whistle, who is playful, who is shy.

Monday 25th Feb.
We are on the road again, having had no computer access for several days. Something of a blessing. It's off to Entebbe, the site of Uganda's main airport, but we are not going there. We are instead lodging at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre, which is the Sunday name for the zoo. There are student dormitories and attractive thatch-roofed circular cottages, known in East Africa as bandas. Jo and I have opted for the latter. However, after almost a month without much food that they are used to the students vote unanimously to splurge, and we are off to the Lake Victoria Hotel, where everyone can choose their favourite pizza, followed by ice cream. Hurrah for hedonism!

Thursday 21st. Feb.
Off to Lake Mburo National Park, home to the only population of impala in Uganda, as well as zebra and topi antelope, so distinctive with their blue-black legs that make them look as if they are wearing trousers.

The first stop is in the market town of Mbarara, where we must stock up on groceries, as we will be camping for four nights. It is now that the student in charge of the menu comes into her own. Ronalee works with the Ugandans and gets some input from the other Canadians, but it is she who makes all the purchases and ensures that we have enough grub for a party of twenty. Luckily Hannah, our group secretary is used to large-scale purchasing, as she comes from a family of nine, so she helps out with ideas, and together they simply double the quantities that she is used to. One big difference is the variety and taste of fresh fruit. We will have no refrigeration, but we will have a supply of delicious finger bananas, two other edible varieties, cheap avocados (ten for a dollar),passion fruit by the basket full and sweet, tasty pineapples that resemble our Canadian supermarket varieties just as fillet steak resembles cheap hot dogs.

Our accommodations have gone very down-market with the camping. The students will of course divide into his and her tents, there being two large ones, quite big enough to handle our small crew, while Jo and I get a single tent to ourselves. The shower is the most down-market of all, being just three sheets of corrugated iron around a badly poured concrete pad. The open side faces into the bush, and showering is nothing of the sort. The technique involves a plastic cup and bowl, and the art of sluicing oneself before and after the application of soap.

Our work revolves around the cattle, which almost certainly outnumber the other species in the park and the small commercial fishery that supports a community located just outside the boundary. The fishermen are not allowed to bring their families into the park, but live in small mud-and-wattle houses near the landing site. Every day buyers come from Mbarara and further afield and so the economy stutters along. Those fishermen who specialize in the netting of tiny cichlids may catch a few hundred, on a good day. The fish are sun-dried and smoked on racks, and a rack of 100 cichlids fetches 1000/-, about 65 Canadian cents.

Wednesday 20th Feb.
This was our last day in Queen Elizabeth National Park. We spent Tuesday completing our research-cum-teaching program with the students. This involves the capture, by darting, of Uganda kob, the beautiful russet-coloured antelope that live here and the examination of their blood to see if they are part of the story of the infectious disease called Brucellosis that is known to affect the cattle on the buffalo in the area, not to mention the people. In humans the condition is known as undulant fever, and as its name implies it causes nasty symptoms that can be very severe at times, and often ends up if untreated, as a debilitating arthritis. So far we have not found any evidence of Brucellosis in kob, but as they are heavily poached, and as the handling of carcasses is one way in which the bacteria that cause it can be transmitted, we want to know if they are part of the story.

Today we switched species, and tried a new drug combination on Cape Buffalo that not only get Brucellosis, but also are host to other nasty diseases, often harbouring them without any signs of disease. The drug cocktail worked to perfection, and we will forward our results to the Uganda Wildlife Authority so that they can decide if this single result is worth a further examination. Of course one trial is far too little to allow us to reach any solid conclusions, but it was an encouraging start.

Monday 18th Feb.
Monday was a special day. We had to return to Kasenyi to finish up the painting work that we had started, and Vivien found the time to paint a dramatic mural on the back wall of one of the classrooms. She depicted the Ruwenzori foothills at the left, with the savannah grasslands of the park, dotted with enormous Giant Euphorbias, and then at right, Lake George, at the fishing village of Kasenyi, with a pod of hippos right near the fish landing, and a dugout canoe on the water. She insisted that this is a work-in-progress and so we will have to see what next year's student group thinks of it all, and who can build on it or do another mural in a different classroom.

The school choir and band put on a concert for us, using the instruments that they had purchased with the money we donated two years ago. Then came a surprise. Our students had prepared a mini-drama about the importance of hippos to the fishery and while, two of the girls acted out the hippo under an old sheet, others pretended to be fish of various sizes, starting with little fish being eaten by bigger fish, and finally the biggest of all being caught in a mosquito net which was made to double as its fishing cousin. The kids lapped it up, the biggest laugh of course occurring when the "hippo" tossed some grass between her legs and Salvatory, our the student interpreter, explained that the product of night's grazing was essential as a food item for the herbivorous fish.

Kiiza George (the first name pronounced Cheesa to Caucasian ears, as are all words in Uganda that start "Ki.."), the smiling headmaster, then invited us for a lunch snack of hard-boiled eggs and chapattis in his house, which was most generous, considering that we were a party of 15 people. George then joined us for a trip to another school with which he is involved. This one had 46 registered AIDS orphans and there were many new faces, as the enrolment has risen from 127 last year to 220 this year. First event was a well–orchestrated little concert, with accompaniment of drums. The came our turn, with gifts of school supplies and toys to give to each child. Luckily we had enough gifts to give each child something of value. The tiny ones, in the first four forms, all received a Teddy Bear, the older ones a geometry set or something similar. Each of the girls, no matter what her age, was given a small piece of costume jewelry. The Teddy Bears had been lovingly knitted by a church group in Saskatoon that call themselves Teddies For Tragedies. How appropriate.

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