I struggle to keep up with the line of men. The
air is rich and cool like butter and my backpack covers a sweat-soaked
t-shirt. I long to sit, take it off, drink clean water, eat something
and fall into a deep sleep.
The men look back occasionally. They probably wonder why four
tired white travelers follow them, but they don't speak to us.
The man in front of us pushes a bike with a car battery strapped
to the seat and we still don’t know why. We're in Uganda, some
time past midnight, walking through a dense, remote island forest.
I'd been on the beaten backpacker trail since we arrived in
Africa and wanted to get out of the bus and hostel routine. I
decided to go to the islands and the big lake. Lake Victoria is
as prominent a geographical feature on the African continent as
Mt. Kilimanjaro or the Great Rift Valley. The second largest inland
body of water in the world lies in the center of the continent
between Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. It feeds the two great African
rivers, The Nile and The Zambezi.
The Ssese Islands, a series of 84 tiny islands, many of which
are uninhabited and unexplored, are in the Northwest corner of
the lake. None have running water, electricity, restaurants, pavement
or hotels so tourists ignore them. A lucky few island residents
own motorbikes but none own cars. There is no point. The island
communities are small and the dirt roads between them are loose
packed and poorly kept.
According to my Lonely Planet guide, a German ex-pat couple
live on Buggala Island and allow visitors to pitch tents on their
land. I set out from the capital city, Kampala, with three willing
companions, to find them.
We get in a car with an unreliable cab driver and are dropped
in the wrong lakeshore village. We arrive amid the bustle of a
tiny fishing community—impossibly small for the port village we
were looking for to catch the ferry. Merchants pack and sell fish
from large slimy stacks piled on broad and lush banana leaves
or in rickety wooden boats. People haul nets with newly caught
stock off boats at the shore. Some villagers sit on crates and
repair the nets with thick cord. Women wrapped in bright fabric
carry water bottles on their head and hawk dried fish. It's a
clear day and the whole scene is a crisp foreground for the massive
We four white people hop out of the car and keep our eye on
the chaos. The town freezes, as though somebody shot a gun in
the air. Everybody turns, points and looks back. Suddenly we are
"Mzungu!" (the Swahili word for white person, used all over
Eastern Africa), erupted from a hundred voices. We laugh nervously
and try to speak to the people.
"What town is this? We want to go to the islands," we say pointing
to the lake. "Ssese islands."
They laugh back, shake our hands and speak in Swahili.We speak
slow and smile, realizing that they can’t understand us.
"Where can we catch the ferry?"
The town's dock manager, who speaks English, emerges. We explain
that we might be in the wrong place, and that we want to go to
He introduces us to another man, who doesn't speak English,
and says that he will leave for the island in several hours. We
arrange to meet at his wooden boat in several hours and pass the
time watching as the commerce winds down for the night.
The boat turns out to be a large dingy with room for 15 people.
I lean on my backpack in the rickety bow and look out onto the
glassy lake. The sun goes down and the warm night sky fills with
an impossible number of stars. Ten men sit in the boat with us
but none speak. The man with the car battery sits at the front
of the boat.
With the tiny outboard motor the 20-km trip takes two hours
and eventually we pull up on a beach below a dark and dense forest.
We expected a town, a settlement, a road, pretty much anything
but a dark wall of trees.
The group from the boat wordlessly gathers their things and
wait as the man pulls a bike out of a bush and straps the car
battery to the seat. We walk single file through a gap between
lush mangrove bushes, up a hill in dim light to a path through
the darkness between gnarled tree trunks, below a dense network
We walk for hours without stopping, not knowing what else to
do. Silver tendrils of moonlight filter through the dense canopy
and catch the whites on the Canadian flag sewn to my friend's
backpack in front of me. I stare at it for a few minutes, hypnotized.
I reach out but touch only air and almost lose my balance. I hear
my friend 20 feet ahead on the trail, shake off my tiredness and
One by one our group shrinks. Men whisper goodnight and veer
into the bush. We are left following the man with the car battery.
We chat with him in slow, broken English.
"My friends and I need a safe place to sleep. Can we sleep in
our tents outside your place?" I ask him.
He misunderstands and picks out the word "place," but hears
it as "police."
"No police on my island. Very safe. No thief. Snake and heeppos,
though. They dangerous. You watch."
"Oh. We understand," my companion says, nodding approval. "Do
you know where we can sleep? We are tired."
"You come. My house," he says with a broad smile that gleams
in the dark. "But I am a very poor man. I sorry."
We tell him again we can sleep in our tents but he doesn’t understand.
We ask him about his life on the island and he tells us again
that he is a very poor man. There are no airplanes and cars on
his island, he continues, and his life is more difficult than
As we chat, the forest thins and the path widens into a road.
We pass huts made of cow dung at the edge of small coffee fields.
A brick house with glass windows stands in the middle of a settlement
of huts. This is the man's house. As we shuffle in he lights a
few candles and a lamp. He introduces us to his wife and two daughters
who had waited up for him. The daughters, both under 10 and shy,
giggle when we shake their hand, and said, "howareyou" (pronounced
as though it was one quick word, which was typical of East-African
The room is furnished with simple chairs and a coffee table.
We put our packs on the hard-packed dirt floor covered in throw
rugs and linoleum scraps.
His wife, who speaks no English, serves us hard-boiled eggs
that even my vegan friend accepts, in part to be polite. But we
are famished and it was the best tasting egg we’d ever eaten.
We speak to the children with actions and simple words as the
man looks on fondly. He eventually looks at his watch (a rare
luxury for a rural African). At first we thought he would let
us sleep and put his daughters to bed. He picks up the car battery,
which rests on the floor, and finally answers our unspoken question
when he attaches it to the back of an ancient black and white
tv that sits in the corner.
He fiddles with the aerial as we exchange glances. The set pulls
in one fuzzy channel and we watch the final few minutes of a newscast
out of Kampala. The children, giggling, look at the screen, then
at us, then back at the screen.
A familiar theme comes on, the theme to Dallas, the eighties
drama about rich oil tycoons and American excess. We can feel
the family’s eyes on us. They wonder if this lifestyle is familiar
to us. Is this the standard we left behind? In comparison, the
man and his family are poor and we want to tell them that our
lives back home do not compare to the oil tycoons on the screen.
But language poses a gulf that is too wide.
A few hours from dawn on a remote African island we watch an
episode of Dallas (the only full episode I've ever seen) with
our new friends.
Before we leave the next morning we give the two girls a deck
of playing cards with the maple leaf on it and a several ballpoint
pens (another Lonely Planet tip), thank the man and say goodbye.
Before we leave we have a whispered conference.
"Should we pay him for putting us up for the night?" I ask my
"I suppose it would be polite to offer. He keeps mentioning
his poverty. It doesn’t make sense with this enormous house."
We offer the man some money for his troubles.
He accepts, bows and reminds us, earnestly and in broken English,
that we could send him money when we returned to Canada, because,
as we could see, he said, he is a very poor man.
Darren Stewart is waiting for you in Victoria. Me too.