In order to tell the story of the day we went on safari in an ’88 Corolla, I have to first tell you about the day prior – the day the 19-member staff of Kasese Humanist Primary School went on safari in a 14-person mini-bus.
That Saturday, Wendy, Ben, Michelle, and I arrived at school at the appointed time, 7 a.m., dressed in boots, cargo pants, lightweight shirts, and sun hats. You know, safari clothes. I looked around for Head Teacher David, because he and I were supposed to go pick up the mini-bus for the day, but he was nowhere to be found. We did find several of the other teachers there, in their classrooms, helping each other with cocktail dress-zippers and neckties. Applying makeup, perfume, and cologne.
It was clear that the DEET-smelling Americans and the sweet-smelling Ugandans had different ideas about what it meant to “go on safari.”
David showed up in a three-piece around 7:45. When he and I returned with the minibus at 8:30, the other teachers were still not fully present, accounted for, and/or ready. We finally pulled out at 9:00 on the dot, an hour late and already cramped and sweaty, only to be stopped by the sight of Madame Elson bouncing across the soccer pitch on a motorcycle, side-saddle in an evening gown, one hand holding tight to the driver, the other to her church hat. Somehow, we made room for one more.
Originally, the plan for the day had been to go on a game drive in the morning, then head to the Democratic Republic of Congo border for lunch and spend the afternoon at the market there. The shopping is what attracted most of the teachers. As it turned out, the majority had little interest in seeing the animals.
The vast swaths of protected lands in Uganda draw many international tourists, but few national visitors. In fact, as the economy stagnates and Ugandans struggle to find work, many Ugandans support the idea of removing the protections and using the park land for agriculture.
“Don’t you have these animals in your country?” The teachers didn’t understand our excitement. In fact, they were shocked to find out that we never had lions or hippos and that we’d driven all of our large beasts to extinction. But it felt impossible to gush about how amazing it was that Uganda had preserved so much of its land and protected its creatures, even using America’s failure to do so as a foil, without sounding paternalistic and, well, colonialist. After all, we were about to go on safari, itself a problematic concept, in lands named after Queen Elizabeth.
“I’ve seen all these animals at the zoo,” Madame Ruth said. “I’d rather be at the market.”
Unfortunately, no one really got their wish that Saturday. After stops at the Uganda equator and the Kazinga Channel connecting Lake Edward and Lake George, we arrived to the park around 11 a.m. to discover that we’d missed the morning game drive and were several hours from the one in the evening. The animals were most active during the relative cool of dawn and dusk, so that’s when the scheduled tours happened. Since our driver knew the game drive route well, we decided to try our luck after lunch. But this meant no trip to the market.
Even before we set out on our unofficial tour, Wendy, Ben, Michelle, and I decided that we would be returning the following morning. Our tickets were good for 24 hours, and we wanted to do it right.
In truth, despite our group’s tardiness, our Saturday excursion was a wonderful experience. Because of the expertise of our driver, we visited sites on Saturday that weren’t even a part of our tour on Sunday, such as Katwe Salt Lake, where locals have been harvesting salt the same way since the 1400s. And because of the company of the other teachers, our Saturday trip was full of comedy and camaraderie. Our Ugandan colleagues survived the cramped conditions of the mini-bus with us, overcame their fear of water to paddle with us in a canoe on Lake Edward, and could be counted, male and female alike, to balance our “oohs” and “ahs” with comments about the size of the animals’ testicles.
But it was also precisely because of the company of the other teachers that we knew we needed to go again. The disinterest and disappointment of the majority made us curb our own excitement, made us limit the outward expression of the awe we felt in the face of the nature they took for granted. So we returned bright and early the next morning in the car loaned to us for the duration of our time in Uganda. On Sunday, we went on safari in an ’88 Corolla.
To be continued…