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1,000 Words About Uganda

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Cross posted from Border Jumpers, Danielle Nierenberg and Bernard Pollack.

When we arrived by bus at the HIV/AIDS Resource Center in Katuna, Uganda (the border between Rwanda and Uganda), twenty men were intently watching a match between Manchester United and Chelsea on a small television. Along with the pool table, board games, and additional television downstairs, soccer games provide a much needed distraction for the long-distance truckers who have to wait for their vehicles to be cleared by customs before entering Rwanda.

But just eight months ago, instead of television and camaraderie among workers, the easiest diversion for truckers was sex. Katuna is one of many towns along what is known as the Northern Transport Corridor -- a span of highway that stretches from Mombasa, Kenya through Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and all the way to Djibouti.

In the past, the truckers were often delayed for days on the border, giving them little to do. Boredom -- and drinking -- often led to unsafe sex with prostitutes at the truck stops along the highway. As a result, truck drivers have one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in Eastern Africa. Unfortunately, the virus doesn't stop with them, and is often spread to their spouses.

Now, thanks to the work of the Solidarity Center, a non-profit launched by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organziations (AFL-CIO) to empower workers around the world by helping them form unions, and Uganda's Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union (ATGWU), which has about 3,500 members in

Uganda, the amount of time truckers spend on the border has been reduced from days to just hours. The union has worked through bargaining with the government to reduce the amount of time it takes their paper to go through which reduced the amount of free time they have on the border.  When they don't have as much free time, they're not as likely to engage in unsafe sex. 

The Katuna resource center, like many others dotted along the transport corridor, offers training and education to truckers and sex workers, and provides reading materials like pocket guides explaining sexually transmitted infections and the dangers of letting them go untreated. More than 150,000 truck drivers and community members have received prevention services, care and support information through one-on-one or community group outreach. The Center also provides free testing for truck drivers, already more than 5,000 of them to date.

As we continued along into Kampala, you can't help but immediately feel the pulse and energy of the bustling city. In fact, we love this country so much we have no doubt we'll be back sometime in the future.

People here are also very laid back -- We've even gone three days without a cup of coffee here and didn't seem to mind.

You hear the words "Hakuna Matata" everywhere. Literally.

Internet services down nationwide all day? Hakuna Matata...

Flights cancelled? Hakuna Matata...

Two hours in wall-to-wall rush hours in Kampala? Hakuna Matata...

We spent a lot of time letting go and reversing any stereotypical American traveler latte-induced behavior...

Right after arriving, we visited the Mukono District, about an hour outside of Kampala, Uganda, where we met up with Edward Mukiibi and Roger Serunjogi, coordinators of the Developing Innovations in School Cultivation (DISC) project. Edward, 23, and Roger, 22 started the project in 2006 as a way to improve nutrition, environmental awareness, and food traditions and culture in Mukono by establishing school gardens at 15 preschool, day and boarding schools. And over the last year, DISC has received global attention for its work -- DISC is now partly funded by Slow Food International.

They started with Sunrise School, a preschool taking care of children between the ages of 3 and 6. By teaching these kids early about growing, preparing, and eating food they hope to cultivate the next generation of farmers and eaters who can preserve Uganda's culinary traditions. In addition to teaching the children about planting indigenous and traditional vegetables and fruit trees, DISC puts a big emphasis on food preparation and processing. "If a person doesn't know how to cook or prepare food, they don't know how to eat," says Edward. The kids at Sunrise -- and the other schools working with DISC -- know how to grow, how to prepare, and how to eat food, as well as its nutritional content.

As a result, these students grow up with more respect -- and excitement -- about farming. At Sirapollo Kaggwass Secondary School, we met 19 year-old Mary Naku, who is learning farming skills from DISC. This was her school's first year with the project and Mary has gained leadership and farming skills. "As youth we have learned to grow fruits and vegetables," she says, "to support our lives."

Thanks to DISC, students no longer see agriculture as an option of last resort, but rather as a way to make money, help their communities, and preserve biodiversity.

We were so impressed with project DISC and urge you to check out this opinion-editorial we wrote about them for the Des Moines Register.

With 1,000 words nearly coming to an end...

We would be remiss if we didn't mention that Uganda, like most of the countries in Africa, is full of contradictions.

While everyone we met in Uganda was friendly and helpful, going out of their way to assist us when we needed directions, a Wifi hotspot, or a place to find vegetarian food, the country also has some of the most restrictive laws against human rights on the continent. While we were there, the "Bahati Bill" was introduced in parliament.  The Bahati called for life in prison -- and in some case the death penalty -- for people found "guilty" of homosexual activity.

As gay marriage laws are passed around the world, including most recently in Mexico City, it's hard to believe that lawmakers would punish people for being gay or having HIV/AIDS. The Bahati bill also punishes anyone who fails to report a homosexual act committed by others with up to three years in jail, and a prison sentence of up to seven years for anyone who defends the rights of gays and lesbians.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, due to mounting pressure from governments such as the United States, across Europe, and in Canada, said that he opposes the measure, and would attempt to try and soften the bill. Yet, even the possibility that a watered-down version of the proposed law could be passed, is an alarming sign of a dangerous trend of prejudice all over Africa. In Blantyre, Malawi, for example, a gay couple was arrested a few months ago after having a traditional engagement ceremony. Homosexuality is punishable by 14 years in jail in Malawi.

Other things we want to quickly note

Where we stayed: overall, the Aponye Hotel in Kampala, Uganda is a very good budget option in the heart of the bustling city center. It is in walking distance from restaurants, markets, ATMs, the bus station and more. Approximately $35/night, the room was very simple, clean, with air-conditioning and hot showers, and Wifi in the lobby.

The veg options were great: We ate fresh avocado, a local staple called posho (or maize flower), matooke (or banana), rice, and cassava. Served with the meal was a dipping sauce made of ground nuts and tomatoes cooked in a covered box sauce pan. Most of the vegetarian food is served in Uganda is steamed -- usually using banana leaves on the bottom.

A must do: Go whitewater rafting at the base of the Nile (just a short ride from Kampala). Don't worry it's safe and you will have a lot of fun.

Another must do: Go swimming in Lake Victoria -- no need for a fancy hotel, most will let you on the property to swim and use their facilities for a nominal fee.

The overland bus company we recommend: Starways (and trust us -- because we traveled on all of them).

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