Portraits of displaced life in Kampala’s Acholi Quarter

Girls returning home to the Acholi Quarter after school.

I recently spent several days in a Kampala neighbourhood called the Acholi Quarter. This slum was formed over 20 years ago by northern Ugandans fleeing from the fighting between rebels and government forces that began in the 1980s. There were 11,000 people living here at last count, but that number has surely risen in recent years.

Grinding sesame seeds and peanuts (also known as “semsem” and “g-nut”). I truly enjoyed eating some local vegetables with g-nut paste!

During the conflict, the Lord’s Resistance Army under Joseph Kony kidnapped young girls and boys to serve the rebels as soldiers or slaves. Civilians were targeted, mostly from the northern Acholi ethnic group. Their crops were stolen to feed soldiers, and their homes burned.

Tens of thousands fled to the safety of Kampala, where they have now lived for up to 20 years. But the Acholi refugees that I met had only found a new sort of trouble. In the slum, whole families live in mud-walled homes with only a few rooms. There is little work except long days breaking rocks in the local stone quarry, a deep gash that runs through the Acholi Quarter.

Lots of children played by chasing tires up and down hills (at least when there were no foreign visitors to follow around!).

Many men, unable to find work or provide for their families, have turned to alcohol and domestic abuse. Women work selling vegetables on the street, or making bead jewelry. Many have lost respect for their husbands and their family relationships are not happy.

After rent, food, and medical costs, many parents don’t have enough many money for school fees for their children. Young girls turn to prostitution and boys drop out of school to work in the quarry. By night, I was told, the streets turn sinister and thugs roam.

Jovino, who works in the rock quarry. When I first met him, his hand was grotesquely swollen from pounding stones with a hammer day after day.  Someone at a tiny local clinic cut the infected area and drained his hand, and Jovino was regaining finger movement by the time I left.

Jovino’s wife making bead jewelry. The couple has 17 children in their household. Some are their own, others are orphaned relatives. Many families I met had taken in orphans.

A butcher in the Acholi Quarter. No refrigeration here, and he uses a whisk to shoo flies away.













Fighting stopped in 2008 when Kony and his army of indoctrinated child soldiers crossed into Congo DRC. With peace and stability returning to the north, the Acholi families here would love to return home. But they can’t, they all told me. It’s too expensive to move their whole families, rebuild their homes, and begin farming again. With their own land, they could grow their own food and escape the high costs and moral decay of their Kampala home, they said. But what would they eat for the first year, while waiting for crops to grow? Many were optimistic that they would return someday, but they could not say how.

For now, the newer arrivals rent homes from the refugees who arrive earlier and claimed a spot. There’s electricity, provided through dangerous-looking illegal hook-ups. A connection to the city water supply is possible, but too expensive, so families pay for each jerry can they need. It’s not a safe or nurturing place to raise a child.

A little girl taking care of an even smaller child…

…and apparently happy to do it.

Two buddies walking arm-in-arm through the Acholi Quarter.

Grinding peanuts into paste by hand. This woman sells chapati, eggs, and other goods by the roadside, and managed to save 75,000 shillings (around $30). She kindly lent that money to another woman, who is now refusing to repay.

I spent my time with Africa Arise , a group started just one year ago to offer personal and family counselling, as well as Christian discipleship. They hope to soon offer job skills training and, finally, resettlement opportunities for the stranded Acholi.

Conditions in the Acholi Quarter and the resulting social problems of substance abuse, violence and hopelessness, all resemble what I’ve seen in any slum or refugee community. Still, the people I met were extremely friendly, and warmly welcomed me into their homes. They seemed excited, even eager, to have a Canadian visitor, especially after I told them I would share their stories with my friends, family, and church back home.

I felt truly touched by their welcome, and by the difficult circumstances I saw. The past decades of violence have left lasting psychological scars. But the people in Africa Arise’s program said the counseling is making a real difference. “It’s released us completely,” one said. “It’s the only good thing here in the Acholi Quarter.”

Neighbours have taken notice of this new peace, and there’s a long waiting list to enroll in the next session. In a place that might look barren of hope, there seem to be some seeds still sprouting.

Like most of the women I met, Lucy has a big bag of bead jewelry that she’s looking to sell. The beads are made by rolling and varnishing strips of paper.

Lucy dyes strings of beads and hangs them to dry outside her home. She was abducted by the LRA rebels and held captive for seven months, until she had opportunity to escape during a battle.

Haircut in Kampala

A shopping complex in a busy downtown part of Kampala, where I found plenty of hair-cutters. But how to choose the right one?

I tend to be pretty shaggy, and am just fine with that. But even I have my limits, and the equatorial heat in Uganda was starting to make me question a mop of hair’s utility.

So, it was off to find someone who could offer a trim. Selection was very good, with little salons (or “saloons”) on absolutely every street, wherever I go in East Africa. But those are all for African guys with very short hair, so I was a little concerned that I wouldn’t find anyone who could handle what I wanted.

This is Brian. He cut my hair.

If not, so be it; I could just shave it all off. Fortunately, after ducking into a few hair studios (I figured women’s stylists might be my best bet), I found Brian in a one-room salon with cheery yellow walls. It was busy, which I took as a good sign. He assured me this wasn’t his first foreigner’s haircut, so I settled into a chair with Ugandan women on either side having their nails styled or hair braided.

As I relaxed and had the deed done, I heard Brian’s story of saving money for years, then buying the hair salon from its disinterested owner after starting his career elsewhere. He mostly cuts women’s hair, but also has a regular customer who’s a foreign guy like me.

A few quick, professional snips and I’ve been shorn.

As the owner of this small business, Brian works 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., six days a week. Sunday is his “day off,” when he works only six hours, until 2 p.m., he told me.

The final haircut was a little shorter than I usually prefer, but it should be just right by the time I’m back in Canada at the end of June. And Uganda is proving to be hotter than Kenya, so I don’t mind the extra air flow.

Unsure of local etiquette, I did not tip. But Brian’s getting a shout-out: look for him in the William Street area near Kampala’s taxi park. Tell him Scott sent you!

…and after.


Hiking the beautiful peaks of Uganda’s Mt. Elgon

Early morning view of the mountain range from Mbale town, as I pack my bag to set out for the four-day trek.

Mountains are my favourite scenery. There’s something incredibly beautiful about the intersection of fast-moving clouds, gigantic rocky towers, and bright blue sky.

Our guides, park rangers Jasper and Alex. After an hour or so of hiking, we had reached the edge of Mt. Elgon park.

I went looking to take my breath away on Mt. Elgon, a national park on the border of Kenya and Uganda. After organizing porters, guides, tents, sleeping bags, and food in the town of Mbale, my hiking companion and I started the four-day hike.

First hour and going strong, as we march uphill through farmland. The views were already impressing me, with many hours yet to hike.

It was rainy season in East Africa, and Mt. Elgon has a well-earned reputation for being a very wet mountain. One of our guides told me that the heavy rains that stream down these rocks provide much of the water for the Nile River and Lake Victoria.

We began steadily climbing through farmland a little ways from the park boundary, at a height of 1,700 metres above sea level. Once inside the park, we twice interrupted local residents cutting down trees, which is allowed only on two days per week. They quickly dropped their bundles of bamboo and disappeared into the forest at the sight of our armed guides/park rangers.

After lots of steep hills, we had climbed through several of the mountains vegetation zones: rolling countryside, rain forest with tall, thick trees, sunny thickets of bamboo, and then Elgon’s alpine heath, with scraggly trees and yellow grass.

Up here, the path became more of a stream and we edged our way along the driest side. My shoes were still soon wet, and the rest of me soon followed when, unsurprisingly, the rain began. it was a damp,chilly night at a sheltered camp site at 3,500 m elevation.

A lookout spot where we rested. You can see how many people live on the foothills leading up to the mountain; I don’t think they often make the long walk down to town.

Day 2: we’re approaching Jackson Summit, a steep rocky mound shrouded with cloud.

Jackson Summit, getting closer, but first we headed for Wagagai Peak, the highest part of the Mt. Elgon range.

Day 2 found us walking shortly after 7 a.m. towards Wagagai Peak (4,321 m) and Jackson Summit (4,160 m). After a warm sunny start, the wind blew in some thick clouds and the weather turned misty and damp.

The hike to Wagagai was a long walk steadily uphill, but rarely much more challenging than that. Approaching grey rainclouds meant we didn’t stay on the chilly mountain top for too long. The views of the nearby volcanic crater were good, but the mist obscured anything farther away.

Mt. Elgon’s otherwordly landscapes, with strange little trees and clouds drifting in and out.

As we started our descent to head for Jackson Summit, the rain began coming steadily down. Soon, we were wet and cold, with soggy shoes and chilly fingers.

For lunch, we had made the world’s driest peanut butter sandwiches. Not even the constant rain could soften up that bread!

Clouds rolled in, making everything misty and chilly.

To try to keep warm, we picked up the pace and walked quickly through the wet yellow grass. The trip up Jackson was steeper, but it didn’t take long to clamber over all the wet rocks and reach the top. I actually had to use hands on some of the steep parts.

At the top, I saw the black remains of a fire and some clothes. Later, I learned that some local residents still come up to the mountain top for traditional ceremonies.

Summit achieved! The view from Wagagai Peak. It was getting cold and the rain was coming heavier, so we didn’t stick around too long.

The local customs here include circumcision ceremonies that made me thankful I wasn’t born into Uganda’s Sabine tribe. Traditionally, young men in their teens must stand for public circumcision without flinching or making a sound.

After a very quick, cold lunch, we are now very wet and scrambling over rocks towards Jackson Summit.

Day 3 saw us leave our camp at 3,500 m above sea level and retrace our steps back towards the peak. Next we turned to walk over a gorge with a spectacular view, then down a new trail through the volcanic caldera.

This vegetation zone at the mountain top is called an African alpine moor, where not much grows among the rocks except a few small high-altitude trees and some scubby bushes and flowers.

We reached a ridge at 4,000 m elevation, passing many oddly-shaped rock formations along the way. While resting here, I saw the wind blow in tendrils of cloud to conceal the nearest peaks, then whisk them back out again just as fast.

The rain has dried, and the flowers poke their heads up.

Day 3: a beautiful sunny morning as I look out across the first deep valley we will need to cross. Even more gorgeous in person.

Next, we began our long descent across several gentle mountain slopes and valleys. This was our longest hiking day, and it lasted eight and a half hours. Going downhill is actually harder than climbing upwards, and some of my seldom-used leg muscles became very tired.

Rock formations up in the grassy alpine moor, Elgon’s highest vegetation zone.

Still, my eyes weren’t tired of taking in the beautiful view. Mountain air currents make weather unpredictable; I watched a cloud coiling around itself as wind pushed it toward the mountain, then rise as it hit that natural rock wall and curl over itself in a constant swirl of white mist. Very neat!

After a long day of walking, we reached Tutum Cave, our destination for the night. This is definitely the most interesting place I have ever camped: a cavernous cave with a waterfall spilling over the entrance.

Alex lets us take a rest on a ridge before starting a descent.

By balancing on some rocks, the waterfall became a powerful, not-so-warm shower that I took advantage of. Squeaking bats flew in and out as dusk fell, and we slept to the pounding sound of the falls.

We’ve climbed back up to 4,000 m above sea level here and the clouds are almost close enough to touch.

Following the trail along the side of a valley.

Day 4 was a relatively easy four-hour hike down to the edge of the park, then over countryside toward the town of Sipi. We passed again through spooky, mossy trees, then bamboo and rain forests. Finally, we were walking past farms, cows, and onto roads for the final leg into town.

Finally, we descend to where a dark, mossy forest grows.

Sipi is a small place, but it does host an impressive trio of waterfalls, ranging from 65 to 100 metres high. We walked past these, said goodbye to our guides and porters, then settled into a simple guesthouse for a big meal, cold drinks, and a beautiful view of the Sipi Falls.

Mt. Elgon is the first African peak I’ve hiked, and it far exceeded my expectations. Except for some cold and rainy moments, it was a superb experience. The four-day, three-night pace provided challenging, but not exhausting, hikes.

After our longest hiking day yet, we also took the opportunity to rinse off in this natural shower.

The various landscapes all had their appeal, and it seemed that every 20 minutes of walking revealed a new vantage point with a whole new view of the mountain. I recommend it, just don’t expect to stay dry, especially in the rainy season!

Tutum Cave, where we set up camp for our third night and fell asleep to the pounding of a waterfall pouring over the cave entrance.

The joys of simple living

A cheap guesthouse where I slept for a night. Not pictured: the noise from a nearby night club.

I also could have called this post “The unglamorous life of a backpacking.” At least, that was the alternative title that came to mind while I rinsed my dirty socks in an also-dirty guesthouse sink.

You see, when I travel, I prefer not to stay in the nicest hotels. In fact, my accommodations often could be called “bottom of the barrel.” Part of this is my own stinginess; three months spent in expensive places would quickly add up to more than I want to pay!

But the places where I sleep are also an important part of my travel experience. Taking private transportation directly to a comfy hotel means I would miss a huge amounts of grit and beauty. Falling asleep in a cheap room to the delightful lullaby of shouting motorbike drivers and street kids playing tag on the street below (true story!) is a real part of life in this part of the world that I wouldn’t want to skip.

I’m in East Africa to learn and challenge myself. Do you know what’s challenging? Washing all your dirty laundry by hand in a basin or sink! That sure makes me appreciate the luxury of tossing anything remotely dirty into a machine that does all the work for me.

Some places have showers with hot water, other times (usually at people’s homes) it’s a basin and pitcher to pour water on yourself.

How about a cold water shower, or maybe washing by pouring water on myself from a basin? That makes my Canadian habit of standing relaxed under a hot stream of water seem absolutely luxurious.

I’m not saying this because I think the Canadian way is entirely wrong. I don’t plan to completely stop driving my car on our smooth highways, eating junk food occasionally, or enjoying the air-conditioning on a hot summer day once I’m home.

But travel to other parts of the world can be a good reminder that I don’t need those things to survive. I like to abandon my comfortable way of life for a while, in the hopes that I can more fully appreciate so many of the foods, conveniences, quiets, and comforts of Canada once I return.

I’m certainly blessed, both through the technology and comforts of home and through opportunities to live differently.

What’s cooking in Kenya? Ugali, of course!

The finished product: lunch of ugali and tiny, dried omena fish.

I recently got my first Kenyan cooking lesson. A good friend I made in the small town of Sega took me to his home and let me help make a simple lunch of ugali (a thick, sticky mass of carbohydrates, and the foundation of the Kenyan diet) and tiny fish called omena, which are pulled from nearby Lake Victoria, then dried and eaten whole.

Tasty and salty. You don’t ever notice the eyes, I promise!

So, how did we do it?  Easy!  First, my friend George fired up his “jika” a small, charcoal burner and began heating a pot of water for our ugali.  After the water began to boil, he added a little corn flour.  Then, we began to stir.

As the gooey ugali began to thicken, George added more flour to make it the right, play-dough-esque consistency. His experienced hands put in the exact amount, but I’m sure I would need to try several times to get the right ratio.

Here I am, stirring ugali as it thickens over the charcoal heat.

George, my friend and culinary instructor.

George plopped the mass of ugali on a plate and covered it to keep it hot while we started the fish.  Some oil poured in the bottom of a pot, then the fish, then some salt, then a little onion and finally a small tomato all sizzled over the charcoal. I stirred so it wouldn’t burn, and eventually the fish turned slightly golden and crispy.

Stirring the thick mixture of corn flour and water takes some muscle.


Finally, we enjoyed the fruits of our labour. Showing proper Kenyan manners, George brought a basin and a pitcher of water so I could wash my hands as he poured it for me. Now with clean hands, we squeezed the hot, doughy ugali into edible balls in our palms, then scooped up a few fish for each bite.

Ugali may not have a lot of taste, but believe me: it fills you up! George and I were very full after a meal that probably cost only a few dozen cents in total. Maybe, if you ask me nicely, I’ll even make it for you once I’m back in Canada.

Bonus picture: another meal in Sega. This time, nyoyo (corn and beans) and uji (millet porridge) that I bought at a small stall by the side of the road.