The source of the nile

Last century, colonialist European explorers spent decades looking for the Nile’s headwaters.

Today, they are less than an hour’s ride from Kampala, Uganda. And yet Ahmed, a shy driver who has lived in the city all his life, has never been. To go, just for the heck of it – to see Lake Victoria funnel into rapids that eventually tumble into one of the world’s most fabled rivers – would be an unheard-of luxury for someone who, like most Kampalan cabbies, doesn’t buy gas for his taxi until after the passengers are in and he knows where they’re going.

With two weeks in Uganda and Kenya, I wanted to see beyond the easy descriptions of East Africa: "poor," "war-torn" and "desperate." I hoped to look below the surface.

Ahmed, with a good job by Ugandan standards, is a reminder of how close to the edge many live. Visitors can spend their time at the source of the Nile, camping in a game park or at a mountain retreat, but the inequities are always present.

Once we – me, my father and Ahmed – arrive at the Nile’s source, Ahmed stands with hands on his skinny hips, looking at the river.

"It’s nice," he says.

The river is pleasant, but in truth, as with so many "attractions," there is little to see. There is a muddy parking lot and a barren campground where hawkers sell fruit and souvenirs. Across the river is a dense stand of trees. Hundreds of large bats circle above them. My father gazes at them through binoculars.

For a small fee, a young local offers to swim through the rapids. Not wanting a drowning on my conscience, I say "no thanks," and instead sit under one of the few scrubby trees and watch the water and the bats.

Two Egyptian men, their bellies straining button-down shirts, wear expensive-looking watches. They sit nearby.

"We’ve come to see our river," one says, stressing the possessive. I think he is kidding, but later learn the Egyptian army patrols dams in Uganda, so important is the river to their country’s livelihood.

"You must come visit Egypt," the other says. "The pyramids in particular are not to be missed." The killing of some 60 visitors at Luxor in 1997 and the ongoing attacks on Nile cruise tourists are discouraging, I say.

"It could happen anywhere," he replies. I’m not convinced.

Soon Ahmed, my father and I wander back to the car and go for a buffet lunch at a restaurant overlooking the river. It includes the local staple, matoke – a bland dish of cooked bananas with groundnut sauce.

"If you haven’t had matoke, you haven’t eaten, right?" my father asks Ahmed. Still unsure of us, he nods and smiles.

On the way back into Kampala, we stop at the Baha’i temple. A great dome, it sits surrounded by gardens on a hill not far from downtown. The air is hazy with heat and pollution. It is quiet, peaceful.

To the north, near the border with the Sudan, I know from reading the newspapers there is fighting. One of the sides, the Lord’s Resistance Army, is mainly made up of children kidnapped from villages and boarding schools. War also continues in neighboring Republique Democratique du Congo and Sudan.

In a tightly secured compound behind our Kampala hotel, there are about 50 United Nations famine relief trucks. They are brawny vehicles with huge, knobby tires, able to go anywhere. They are idle.

Below, I know from having walked the streets, the crush of humanity continues among the clinging red dust and the gurgling rush of traffic.

My father, who has often visited the region as a doctor and health educator since 1985, says Uganda has improved since his first visit. Back then, a population accustomed to war and the rule of Idi Amin stayed off the streets after dark. Today, candlelit foodstalls and roadside bars are lively late into the night.

For the uninitiated, however, it is hard to get beyond the raw humanity and wildness of Kampala’s center. Small, dirty children beg at stoplights. A woman with feet and hands left stumpy by Hansen’s disease – which used to be called leprosy – begs in front of a fabric store. Shouting police waving handcuffs chase a man past me on the main street.

Nairobi is worse. Two people are shot at midday outside a bank while I’m downtown. The robbers fire randomly into the crowd as they flee with the loot. On every corner, someone wants to shine your shoes, wipe nonexistent mustard from your shirt or be your guide to the city.

On the streets of Kampala and Nairobi, seeing poverty and desperation is unavoidable. The rich – and the region’s government and business elites include some dizzyingly wealthy people – must avoid the streets. For them, there are homes with private gardens, servants and security guards.

There are a few swank restaurants, though these are increasingly targets for armed robberies.

It’s easy to fault the elite for their lack of care, but even well-meaning visitors get good at scowling and politely saying "no."

I make an exception for Daniel, whom I meet while walking to the museum in Nairobi. He is young, maybe 20 years old. He has a friendly face, nice jeans and a denim jacket. From the tattered sleeves emerge the Y-shaped ends of his arms, broken off above the wrists.

"It happened leaving Rwanda," he says. He is a refugee. "We were driving very fast to the border. I was at the wheel, when we had a bad accident."

He has had operations on both forearms to separate the bones so he can pinch a piece of paper or a spoon. If he can collect enough money, he says, some doctors will attach a hook that he’ll be able to squeeze closed.

The refugee-needing-money story is a famous scam. Daniel’s accent isn’t French and his wounds aren’t fresh. But he trusts me to take his wallet from his pocket, put some money in and return it to him.

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