Canadians, Crocodiles and Crowds

June 15th 2015

It’s amazing how much can happen in the course of a week. Even here in Uganda, where everything takes longer, we seem to do an impressive amount of fun things. As you may have noticed, my posts switch back and forth from philosophical musings on development, to narrative accounts of our experiences here so far. Luckily for you, last week was action packed so this post fits into the latter category (phew, no need to sit through my thoughts on white privilege today). So without further ado, here is my account of this past week’s events:

Rafting on the Nile
In my last post I promised you a description of our rafting trip, so here it is! Last Tuesday was a national holiday (Hero’s Day), so we decided to take a trip to the small city of Jinja, which is known for its rafting. After weeks of sitting hunched over a desk all day, I was ready to do something active. Not to mention that despite my love for big cities, they also have a tendency to make me claustrophobic. Sometimes you just need to drive to the nearest forest, take off your shoes, and run around outside, you know? (Any fellow camp counselors reading this will get what I’m saying).

Anyways, before Tuesday I’d been rafting three times before: once on the Bay of Fundy when I was a teenager, and twice while I was living in Quebec. Each time was amazing, but they don’t hold a candle to rafting on the Nile! Maybe it was the size of the rapids, or the knowledge that there could be crocodiles in the water, but this trip was nothing short of intense, in the best of ways. But I’ll start from the beginning:

After a bus ride from Kampala to Jinja, we found ourselves in the middle of the lush Ugandan forest, speckled with small brick houses and smiling children. It was striking to see how lush and beautiful the countryside is, as like most big cities Kampala has very limited green space. The bus followed a very bumpy path through groves of banana and avocado trees, and finally parked outside a large thatched roof building next to the river (oh my God that’s not just any river, it’s the Nile!). Our rafting guides quickly introduced themselves, pointed us in the direction of a modest breakfast laid out, and then got us geared up in helmets and lifejackets. Jeremy, Shelby and I were then paired with another group of three and ushered into a raft with a Ugandan guide, although his accent was distinctly Kiwi (many of the people who work at the rafting company are from New Zealand).

Within minutes we were out on the water learning how to steer the raft and what to do if it capsized. Our guide explained to us the plan for the day: 8 rapids in total, most of them class 4, punctuated by a lunch break on an island and a few places where we could swim. Satisfied that we had all the information we needed, we began paddling our way to the first rapid (Class 5 – the biggest rapid you can legally go on). Shelby and I had opted to sit in the front, so we were instantly doused in liters and liters of powerful Nile water. Our little raft rose and fell in 10 foot high swells, with our guide yelling at us the whole time to “PADDLE HARD!” or “GET DOWN!” When we’d made it through the rapid, we looked back to see our Ugandan safety kayaker effortlessly doing flips and spins through the rushing water. We later found out that she is set to compete in the world championships for kayaking held this year in the United States.

Rinse and repeat seven more times and you have our day! The rest of the rapids went pretty swimmingly (haha get it, because we were swimming and rafting on the Nile?). It was exhilarating to be tossed around on the river, paddling as hard as we could to stay afloat. There were only two times that I was genuinely scared, and that’s when our raft capsized. The first time I was able to swim out from under the boat pretty easily, and I kept my grip on both the safety line and the paddle.

The second time however was on the last rapid, and as soon as we flipped I was sucked into a vortex of kicking legs and rushing water. After what felt like ages I managed to surface, but only had time to spit out my mouthful of water before getting tossed back under. I finally emerged about 40 meters down the river, my paddle nowhere to be seen. Shelby was spluttering next to me, and we grabbed for each other’s hands. We were both a little shaken, but it only took a few minutes for us to start laughing as we drifted down the now calm river. Poor Jeremy seemed a tad traumatized though, and he informed us that he is “not a thrill seeker” (I’m willing to bet that he does a very good Eyore impression. Am I right Jeremy?).


IMG_0774   Rachel

The Uganda vs. Botswana football match
On Saturday Shelby, Jeremy and I decided to go see the Ugandan football team take on Botswana. Ugandans love their football – most are ManU fans – so we knew it would be a good game. Sure enough, from the minute we left our house on Saturday afternoon the energy was palpable. Whizzing through the city on our bodas, every second person on the street was wearing a Uganda jersey (good thing we bought our own a few days before). When we drove through city center there were vendors selling flags, whistles, hats, and so much more. By the time we got close to the stadium all of our fellow boda riders seemed to have some sort of noisemaking instrument – they were blowing horns, whistles and even banging drums. The energy and noise only escalated when we got to the stadium.

It was the first time I’ve ever seen Ugandans be early. We arrived a good hour and a half before the game, but already the line to get through security went out the main gates. After being jostled through we picked up some popcorn and our favorite local beer (Nile Special), from one of the vendors lining the inside of the fence. Our treats in hand, we mounted the steps into the game.

The Mandela National Stadium is probably the biggest arena I’ve ever seen. It’s a huge concrete structure that looks like a cross between the Coliseum and the Killam Library. Its capacity is just over 45,000, and for this game the stands were at least 75% full. The three of us stationed ourselves right in the middle of the Ugandan side, and contentedly sipped our beers until the game began.

The Ugandan Cranes are not known to be a great team (although I’m sure they could put the Canadian team through their paces – sorry guys). In the newspaper we’d read that they’d only won 58% of their qualifying games so far for the 2017 AFCON qualifiers. But in my inexperienced opinion they were pretty darn good! Other than my brief but fairly successful high school career as goalie, I have very little knowledge of football. So my jaw would drop every time the Ugandan goalie booted the ball ¾ of the way down the field.
As it turns out, the Ugandan team may not be the best in the league, but they were better than Botswana. They won 2-0, to the immense excitement of the crowd who showed their support by dancing and making as much noise as possible. By the end of the game I was nearly deaf, but I was almost as thrilled as the other supporters. What can I say, the energy was contagious!

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Luckily for us, the excitement didn’t end after the football game. When we got home we were greeted by big hugs from none other than fellow Canadians Erica and William! They had flown in from their home in Rwanda for the weekend, and had somehow managed to follow my questionable directions to our doorstep. Erica is something of an adopted sister to me ever since she started looking after my sister and myself eight years ago. So needless to say I was overjoyed to see both her and her husband William. We spent the evening making food and swapping over a year’s worth of stories. It was so good to talk to people who not only understand our cultural background, but who have also known me for years. By the time we went to bed it felt like we’d had a good dose of home. And when they left yesterday afternoon, they’d convinced us to come visit them before we leave Uganda. So stay tuned for a post on our upcoming trip to Rwanda! (Hopefully)

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Free the Nipple
Although the following anecdote can’t be described as an event per se, it was such an interesting exchange that I have to include it here.

Let me ask you a question: what happens when one of your co-workers in Uganda stumbles across an article about the Free the Nipple campaign and shares it with the office? A whole lot of heated, culturally layered debate, that’s what. Jeremy and I were sitting in the office when our co-worker piped up about the article. The other Ugandans in the office started laughing and writing it off, but more liberal-minded Jeremy and I started questioning. Why was it so funny for women to want to be able to go topless? Why shouldn’t they? The conversation escalated until voices were raised and people were talking over each other trying to make their point. The participants: Jeremy and I (defending the nipple), two other women (falling somewhere in the middle), and the office’s resident lawyer, who was strongly opposed to the idea.

So there we were, yelling about the sexualization of nipples over our lunch of beans and rice. Now I’m not going to lie, the fact that it is not socially acceptable for me to take off my shirt in public has never really bothered me. I’ve never really felt that my rights are being curtailing in this area. But I also recognize that my discomfort with removing my shirt in public is the result of my socialization into thinking it’s inappropriate. Similarly, the fact that a woman’s boobs are seen as mystical and erotic body parts has more to do with societal constructs rather than an actual psychological predispositions.

Psychology aside, it was fascinating to see how much culture influences logic. In Canada it is commonly accepted that the sexualization of boobs, gender as binary, etc is all a social construct. But here many people feel that these things are part of our nature. Furthermore, there seems to be a belief that culture is static and can’t be changed. I’ve grown up in a country that is relatively accepting of all people and beliefs, but in Uganda these liberal ideas are not often introduced or fostered. As such, the positions we took in the argument were very much steeped in our cultural understandings. Nature versus nurture, am I right?

Point being, I never thought I could learn so much about culture by talking about nipples.


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