Earlier this week, Faith and I went on a safari to Murchison Falls with our respective parents and her sister. The wildlife-viewing was interesting in its own right, but since we’d already been to Murchison before, the newest, most striking part of the journey was the place we stayed.
We had originally hoped to stay at Red Chilli Rest Camp, where Faith and I had stayed in 2010. Although the facilities there border on the rustic, the camp is actually inside the national park, so it’s very close to all the safari action. The person organising our safari failed to secure our reservation though, so we ended up staying in a place called Global Village Guest House, which is in a village outside the town of Pakwach, near the entrance to the park.
Because Pakwach is on the opposite side of the park from Kampala, the drive was much longer, and shortly after we crossed Karuma Falls, it seemed we had left Uganda. The whimsical Bantu-sounding town names in central Uganda (like Wobulenzi and Kigumba) gave way to almost Sudanese-sounding place names like Te Okoto, and of course Pakwach itself.
The place looked very different. The huts all had artistic-looking terraced thatch roofs. And the huts were much closer too each other than in villages in most of the rest of Uganda. The landscape surrounding the villages was much more stark. While a village in Buganda or Busoga would be a green sea of different kinds of bananas and other fruit trees, the land here looked very dry and the only crop we could see growing in any significant quantity was cassava, a starchy tuber that can tolerate arid climates.
And the people were different too.
Of course, some things are the same wherever you go in Uganda. The kids from the village thronged around us and wanted to touch us and play with us. But they didn’t call us muzungu, the term for white people in most of East Africa. For our part, we weren’t sure how to greet them. Usually, a Luganda greeting will be recognisable in the other Bantu languages of Uganda, and if that doesn’t work, Swahili might. We tried both but the kids just stared at us. Our driver, who was from Buyankole, in the west of Uganda, but who also spoke Luganda and Swahili (and a little Arabic, by the way), commented that he was only able to communicate with the locals, theoretically his compatriots, in English.
Perhaps the most striking feature of this place was how thoroughly modern it made the rest of Uganda seem. In Kampala, we are used to power outages (“load-shedding”, we call it). But a power outage suggests the presence of electricity.
In Pakwach, however, the entire town was off the grid. So the only places that ever had electricity were those that had generators. And generators are expensive to run, so those places only turned on their power at night, after the sun had gone down, and there was no free natural light left to use.
Our experience in Pakwach was quite illuminating. I consider myself more educated about Africa than the average American (I know that Africa is a continent and not a country, for example), and I knew that the national borders drawn by Europeans arbitrarily grouped disparate ethnic groups together in the same country, while splitting some ethnic groups up across those borders. But this was the first time I’d seen two dramatically different cultures existing in almost total isolation of each other even though only a few hours of driving separated them.
And I also realised that “poverty” is far too broad — even crude — a word to glibly apply and generalise across the spectrum of challenges faced by disparate groups of people.
For example, one might conclude that the majority of people in Buganda aren’t “poor” compared to the people in Pakwach. The former have more fertile soil and easier access to electricity. But one could also argue that the people in Pakwach experience less poverty: their lives are much more stable, and the communal safety net seems much stronger in the village, such that while no one has much, no one has nothing.
The truth is that the people of these two very different areas of Uganda experience very different challenges. We tend to group all these challenges together under the catch-all label “poverty.” Maybe we need to rethink that.