A Compilation of Misadventures

Years ago, I wrote down some stories from my Peace Corps service in Uganda in 2009-2010. In those days I didn’t have consistent access to electricity, much less high speed internet, so I hadn’t shared the written version of these stories previously.

Hitchhiking in Western Uganda

I woke at sunrise and stuffed my sleeping bag. After thanking my friend Martha for graciously letting me stay in her one-room house in the remote mountains that run along the Uganda-DRC border, I packed my small backpack with a change of clothes and toothbrush. That day I was traveling to visit my friend Dave, which would entail passing through two large towns, Kasese and Fort Portal, then getting a taxi to a rural area inhabited by chimpanzees. I had a long day of travel ahead of me. I walked along a rural dirt road until I found a motorcycle taxi and hopped aboard, which took me to the nearest intersection with the paved road. I did not speak the tribal language of this region, and the taxi etiquette varies somewhat between different regions of Uganda.

In general, the most common form of transportation other than motorcycle is matatu, a Volkswagen bus-sized vehicle that holds 20 people or more. In rural areas where there are not enough passengers to make matatus cost effective, old Toyota Corolla-like cars are used, typically holding at least eight people. Common to all forms of Ugandan transportation is the possibility that there will be a chicken sitting on your feet for the ride, you may be handed someone else’s baby to carry, and you may either be instructed to sit on someone else or under them, depending on how big you are compared to a Ugandan. Pigs are often strapped to motorcycles, goats are common passengers in the undercarry of buses, and cardboard boxes containing hundreds of talkative newly hatched chicks are sometimes transported in the overhead storage of buses. Red dust rises from roads across the region, especially during dry season, leaving a reddish-brown tinge to hair, skin, and nasal secretions. When using public transit, you can expect to be smelly, dusty, and sore from not moving for hours while packed tightly with other travelers.

There was a crowd of farmers with sacks of produce at the intersection with the paved road, waiting for a vehicle headed for Kasese town so they could sell their harvest at a market. I stood near some of the women, observing what they did to figure out my next move. Few vehicles passed. Occasionally an open flat bed truck without side rails would stop in front of the crowd, and after bartering about cost of fare, a farmer would hoist their sack of produce onto the truck and climb on. I watched as these vehicles drove away, saw how the truck bed swayed from side to side on the uneven road and contemplated what would happen on the curvy mountain passes ahead. I decided it wasn’t worth finding out, so I waited for something better.

After about an hour, a Corolla-sized car pulled up and a man put his hand out the window indicating that he could take three more passengers. I edged toward the front of the group to see if I had a chance of getting in, and a man waved me on to enter the vehicle. The car was black with dark tinted windows, which is not typical, so I could not see how many people were already inside. I expected four or five since the driver only wanted three more, but to my surprise, when I opened the door the whole back seat was empty and there were only two men in the front. I sat in the middle seat with a woman to my right and a man to my left. The other passengers were well dressed and looked to be business people, not farmers. The car pulled away when the doors closed with a total of five people inside. Each person had their own seat. After living in Uganda for about a year, this seemed like a miracle. The windows were up so I didn’t have dust blowing in my face, the car was clean, there were no animals in the cab, and it even had an air freshener. Nobody spoke until we had nearly reached Kasese. The man in the front passenger seat asked us each where we were going. In a matatu, this job is done by a Conductor, who determines the fare to your destination, takes your money before you board, and assigns your seat. In car taxis, the Driver serves as the Conductor to save space. When the front passenger asked me where my final destination was today, I smiled and shook my head. “I have a long way to go. I need to pass through Kasese on to Fort Portal, then continue to a small village.” “You are going to Fort Portal? I am continuing to there. You stay here and I will take you.” This seemed like a great offer. This was the most comfortable Ugandan taxi ride I had experienced, so I didn’t pass up the opportunity to take the same vehicle for the next leg of my trip.

After the other two passengers in the back seat were dropped off, the car drove off the main road through the town and pulled into a lot surrounded by a concrete wall. There were carpenters working in the front of the lot near the gate, and there was a metal hanger, a rare sight in Uganda, in the back of the compound. “Get out,” the man ordered. I asked for my backpack, but he said, “No. You leave it here.” I had been robbed so many times recently, I was exhausted by it, but arguing with harsh, direct orders from a Ugandan man, as a woman, was not an option. I stood near one of the walls as the men backed the vehicle into the hanger. It was dark inside, but I could see well enough to make out silhouettes. The carpenters leered at me, so I stared at the ground, hoping they would ignore me. Every so often I looked to the back of the hanger, trying to make out what was going on. Both men were moving back and forth, and I could tell they were carrying something heavy from their posture. After what seemed like an eternity, a car drove out of the hanger and stopped in front of me. It was not the same car from before, and it was riding low, visibly weighed down. My backpack and sleeping bag were on the back seat instead of in the trunk. “Can I see my bag?” He nodded. I immediately opened my wallet and found that my cash, bank card, ID, and phone were still there. I was baffled. Why had they not robbed me? There was plenty of opportunity. “Get in,” he ordered. I started to climb in the back seat, but he said “No. You sit up front.” The front seat is usually offered to a man because it is a seat of authority and preferred because it is not shared with more than one person. I hesitated. The feeling that something was very wrong was escalating, but I did not argue and began walking around to the front passenger seat. The man who was driving before approached the driver’s side door holding a handgun, which he placed a handkerchief over before setting in the car. Over the previous year I had seen hundreds of police, military, and military police with rifles, and had even seen soldiers approaching the DRC border with AK-47s, but I had not seen a single handgun. This aberration startled me most of all. I hesitated, so the man repeated, “Get in.” I was surrounded by unfamiliar men, and I assumed the carpenters were in on whatever shady business was going on here, so there was no hope of avoiding entering the vehicle. I was alone and defenseless, so I got in.

The man who had been ordering me around remained at the hanger, and it occurred to me that I had not heard the driver speak. I looked around the car and saw signs that this was his personal vehicle, not a taxi; empty water bottles, junk food wrappers on the floor, tissues. I stared straight ahead and tried to remain calm. Before leaving town, he pulled over at a fueling station and went inside. I got my cell phone out and contemplated getting out of the car and walking around back to text Dave the license plate number. At least then after I was dead there would be some evidence of who had killed me. But then I thought, if he looks outside and sees me walking around the back of the vehicle, he might suspect that I’m up to something and shoot me. I went back and forth in my mind, my phone becoming sweaty in my palm. I decided to stay put and returned the phone to my backpack. I didn’t know this man, but having seen how quickly some men are to kill people in this part of the world, I thought it better to go along with whatever he said and risk being raped and killed later on. He walked back to the car with so many cookies and water bottles he needed both arms in front of his body like a basket to carry them all. I smiled a little, that the big threatening man with a gun likes cookies. He hastily put the car in drive and pulled away. The woman from inside came running out waving bills in the air, shouting what I assumed was “you forgot your change!” in the local language, but he drove off. There is no tipping in Uganda, so leaving your change behind is unheard of. Like many men who remove their wallet from their pocket before a long drive, he pulled out a massive wad of Ugandan shillings and neatened the stack, but then replaced it to his pocket. Almost all of the notes appeared to be 50,000s. For comparison, as a white person, I would avoid pulling out more than 2,000 when in a village market to avoid being targeted by thieves.

The paved road between the towns of Kasese and Fort Portal had many police checkpoints. Typically, two men with rifles in uniform stand on the side of the road and stop each car that comes by. They may accuse the driver of something such as speeding or carrying more passengers than is legal, and will not allow the driver to leave without giving a bribe. It is bad form to ask diplomats and other wealthy foreigners for bribes because most of the country’s economy depends on funding from these sources. Each time we approached a checkpoint, the driver would slow down. The officer would lean toward the car and look at me, then wave the driver on before the car even came to a stop. This happened four or five times during the drive.

We drove in silence for a while, then he started trying to make small talk in French. This, again, was startling. Educated people in Uganda speak a dialect of English, elderly educated Ugandans speak Swahili because that’s what used to be taught in schools, and all Ugandans speak the language of their tribe. Uganda has more than 30 different tribes, each with their own language, none of which resembles French. People in the war-torn Central African Republic and the DRC speak French. I was able to understand his questions from spending time around my high school friend’s family from Quebec, but I answered his questions in English, having only studied Spanish and Luganda. He explained in French that he was disappointed that I did not speak French because his English was not very good. After answering many questions about myself, I asked, “how far are you driving today?” “I am going to the Port of Mombasa,” he replied. “Do you make this drive often?” “Yes, about once a week. For business.” I knew he had come from the DRC, and Mombasa, Kenya is used for international export on ships. Uganda is known for its lack of security and ineffective government, so it is an ideal route for smuggling. I knew I shouldn’t ask, and that there could be consequences if I knew too much, but I couldn’t help myself. “What business are you in?” “I deal mostly in gold. Some diamonds.”

He ended up dropping me off by the road in Fort Portal and didn’t even let me pay him for the ride. Apparently I had saved him enough cash by being his white decoy to get through highway checkpoints. To the police, it looked like I owned the car and had hired him to drive me around, so it would have been bad manners to demand a bribe. When I arrived at Dave’s house that afternoon I was shaken, but glad the gold smuggler’s plans for me turned out to be benign. 

Peace Corps Uganda community health volunteer
When the girls who lived next door to Martha did laundry, they would fling socks at the stucco wall of their house, which they adhered to like Velcro until dried by the sun.

Disappearing Act

The first place I was assigned to live as a Peace Corps Volunteer was right on Hoima Road, known as a highway because few roads in the country are paved, and these few are used for high speed travel. My door was about ten paces from the edge of the pavement, yet it was in a rural area without a market, so I had to go to the nearest town to buy food. No other Westerners lived in the area, and many people I encountered had never been near a white person before. The village, Nakyerongoosa, was populated by farmers, brick makers, and people who distilled waragi, the local alcohol. The geography is lush and green with gradually sloped soft rolling hills and swamps in the low-lying areas. The nearest town is over an hour’s walk down the road toward Kampala, the capital city. The town of Kakiri is used as a truck stop because its distance from the capital allows truckers to spend the night and then drive only a couple hours in the morning to take their goods to market. Once a month, Kakiri hosts a market day where farmers who live in all the villages far flung from the paved road carry their produce into town to sell. This market day is like a carnival without the rides. Truckers come to drink, large quantities of the local food are cooked, and women light candles and continue to sit by their produce long after dark, hoping to sell more.

On one of these market days I arrived in Kakiri after dark, trying to get home from a trip to Northern Uganda. Taxis go from the capital to Kakiri, but they do not stop in Nakyerongoosa because it is not a popular destination. As I walked up the red gravel shoulder on the side of the pavement, the only light around was from the little candles women were using to illuminate their produce by the side of the road. There is only electricity a couple days a week in this area, and there are no streetlights on Ugandan roads. Once I got out of town there was complete darkness interrupted periodically by the headlights of passing matatus and motorcycles. While dark, the streets were bustling with people who had stayed in town to enjoy the market day and were walking back toward their farms.

I was walking on the gravel shoulder on the right side of the road, and vehicles drive on the left. I saw the headlights of a truck approaching that was driving in the middle of the road, then suddenly a second set of truck headlights appeared as an aggressive driver decided to pass on the left, so the second truck was left with little pavement and took up most of the gravel shoulder I was walking on. I stopped and took five quick paces to the right to get out of the truck’s path, and found myself in a free fall. I fell about 15 feet straight down and landed in a thorn bush. My first thought was, “where the hell did this cliff come from? There aren’t cliffs around here.” After checking that my appendages still functioned and concluding that my only wounds were the scratches all over my body from the giant thorns, I looked up into the darkness at the edge of the road. I heard voices of people on the street. (In Luganda) “Where is the white person?” “There was a white person?!?” “Yes! There was one. It was right over there. I saw it.” Several sets of eyes peered over the edge of the cliff. “White person?” “White person!” They offered to try to help pull me back up, but the distance was too far. I had to climb up on my own. So, thoroughly embarrassed by the scene I had caused, I felt for handholds in the rock and started climbing. When I got home I was completely coated in red dust punctuated with little bleeding cuts from the thorns, but grateful the thorn bush had broken my fall so I had avoided a broken or sprained ankle.

The next day I was determined to figure out where this cliff was. The hills in the area slope so gradually, and I had biked and walked the road daily for months. I couldn’t believe there was a cliff I had failed to notice. Even in the daylight, it was hard to find. I realized there was one small farm in particular where the road became higher than the ground beside it. The farm was growing maize, which gave the illusion of the ground being higher than it really was because the maize was so tall, making the drop off seem insubstantial if the tips of the maize plants had been the ground. Uganda has two alternating seasons; rainy and dry. One farming technique to store water for crop irrigation during dry season is to dig big holes and trenches designed to catch water during rainy season. Trenches can then be dug to connect these reservoirs with a network of ditches around the crops when water is scarce. I had fallen into one of these deep trenches, which, combined with the height of the maize and the few feet between the edge of the road and the tips of the maize, made for a decent drop off.

The President

When I was living in Western Uganda, I worked with an organization that was tracking health data from remote villages in and around Queen Elizabeth National Park. One day I was traveling with three men from the organization to visit and weigh a baby who lived on a farm far from any roads. After driving as close as the network of bumpy dirt roads would take us, we hiked on a single-track trail over two mountains. Because my original assignment was not in this region of the country, I had received no training in the local language there. The men I was with were well educated and fluent in the Ugandan dialect of English, as well as the tribal languages of the region. After a long hike, we found the woman, weighed her baby, and talked to her about how she was doing with the newborn. As we were saying goodbye and beginning to walk back down the trail, an elderly woman in traditional dress with a long wooden walking stick came up over the mountain peak and approached me. She was petite and looked to be about 70, which is very respectable because the average life expectancy in Uganda is about 54. She walked right up to me, looking me in the eye and smiling while speaking quickly in Runyankore. I had absolutely no idea what she was saying, but she seemed to think it was very funny. She wrapped her arms around me and gave me a tight hug, swaying my body back and forth in her arms in a hugging dance of sorts. I looked inquisitively at the men I was with, who were all doubled over laughing.

In 2011 there was to be a presidential election. Yoweri Museveni had been in power for 25 years after overthrowing Milton Abote from his second rule with a military coup. Kizza Besigye was running against Museveni for the third time, and some speculated that a violent uprising might occur if Museveni rigged the election again, since a similar situation had just taken place in Egypt. My coworkers explained that in previous elections, Museveni sent people out to rural villages with trucks full of the standard-sized bag of sugar one would buy at a store. In rural areas, packaged and imported goods are hard to come by and unaffordable to the average subsistence farmer. Museveni’s people would give each villager a bag of sugar if they agreed to show up to a polling place on Election Day and vote for Museveni.

In rural mountain regions without roads, it is very rare for any stranger to pass through. Anyone who is not known to the local villagers can be assumed to be a politician campaigning, especially during an election year. The elderly woman had been telling me that I had her vote for president, that she was sure I would be a great politician. This was a funny joke, because I was both white and female, both of which would make me a ridiculous Ugandan presidential candidate. After releasing me from the hug dance, she kept walking down the trail with her walking stick, still laughing quietly to herself.

One time when I was walking down Hoima road from my place in Nakyerongoosa, hailing any matatus that drove by to see if they would take me to Kampala, a matatu pulled over with only a driver. I knew it wasn’t a great idea to get into a vehicle without other passengers, but there was only the one man and I would have felt bad if I made him pull over and then refused to get in. I explained that I was going to Kampala, and he agreed. We didn’t stop to pick up any more passengers along the way, so it was just the driver and me. After we had been driving for a long time and were approaching the last town before the city, he explained that he wasn’t going all the way to Kampala. He needed to turn off the highway before the next town to go to a repair shop because this matatu’s brakes were completely shot. I looked at the man, shocked, and demanded “why would you pick me up in your vehicle when you knew that you had no brakes?!?” He shrugged and said he did not know.

The Fake Matatu

If you need a taxi in Kampala, you can either walk to one of the large taxi parks, which are giant parking lots with hundreds of matatus packed so closely together that their bumpers are often touching. Surrounding the matatus is a sea of people trying to find the matatu going to their village or selling goods to passengers through the windows as they wait for their vehicle to fill up before it will leave. Outside of the taxi parks, parts of the city have areas akin to cab lines at American airports. You walk up to the front of the line of parked matatus aimed in the direction you want to go and talk to the Conductor about your destination and fare.

I had been at one of the grocery stores with two other Peace Corps Volunteers, Steve and Drew, taking the opportunity to shop for items that cannot be found outside of the city. We walked to the first matatu in line at a place they usually wait to take people back to downtown, agreed on fare with the Conductor, and let him assign our seats. He put me in the back left corner of the vehicle, with Drew in the seat directly in front of me, and Steve in the front passenger seat. The matatu was only half way full with other passengers but pulled away, which is unusual because drivers can make more money by only driving completely filled vehicles.

Shortly after we started moving, the only man in the back with me started miming that he wanted me to open the window on my side of the vehicle without speaking. I assumed he was mute, so I opened the window beside me. About 30 seconds later, he started signaling that he wanted the window closed again and reached across me to adjust it. I helped close the window and relaxed again, holding my purse in my lap. After another 30 seconds, he reached across me again to open my window. I blocked his arm forcibly with my elbow and shook my head. He had a window on his side of the vehicle, so there was no reason for him to be opening and closing the window I was sitting beside. He reached across me again more forcefully with one arm while pushing my purse upside down onto the floor with his other hand. Had my purse not had a zipper across the top, all of the contents would have spilled out onto the floor. I grabbed my purse off the floor and held it against my chest, giving the man an angry look.

He tapped the man in front of him on the shoulder and made some hand signals. Then he moved to the seat next to the window on the other side of the matatu and relaxed, leaving an empty seat between us. The man next to Drew mimed that he wanted the window next to Drew open and reached across him to adjust it. He was doing the exact same routine the man next to me had just done. The vehicle swerved and pulled over suddenly. Steve jumped out of the front passenger door, yelled something and was shaking his finger at the driver. Drew and I climbed out and the matatu sped away. While I was dealing with my picky window man, the driver told Steve the front passenger door was broken so he would need to hold it closed as they drove. After a similar skit, the driver had unzipped the right cargo pocket of Steve’s pants and removed his wallet. Steve immediately felt that it was gone and accused the driver of stealing, which is punishable by death in Uganda. The driver dropped Steve’s wallet back on the seat between them, right before swerving and pulling over.

We had been warned about scams where two men would pick up a lone white man in an otherwise empty matatu to mug him, or pick up a woman traveling alone to rape her, but we had never heard of these fake matatus with many thieves posing as fellow passengers. We knew it was dangerous to enter a matatu with only a driver and conductor when traveling alone, but this was a much more elaborate set up. We told the Peace Corps Security Officer about the scheme, and apparently we had encountered some entrepreneurial thieves because he hadn’t heard of it either. 

Journey to Bududa

International aid provided during disaster response

During rainy season in the Spring of 2010, landsides destroyed a trading center in the Bududa District of Eastern Uganda and displaced thousands of people who farmed on steep mountainsides saturated by heavy rains. Many people were buried in the mud along with buildings and farm animals. Rescue attempts with shovels in the hours and days following unearthed bodies, but no survivors. The farmers in the mountains of Eastern Uganda do not build terraces like the farmers in Southwest Uganda. They remove trees to make room for their food crops, which removes the layer of roots needed to hold the soil in place on the near-vertical slopes. Rains in recent years have been especially heavy, leading to recurrent landslides, many of which result in loss of lives and property.

There was a forced evacuation of the mountains around Bududa, and an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp was being created in a valley with flat ground. I figured as a nurse I could be of some assistance, and I was already in Uganda, so I decided to travel there with Steve, an environmental engineer who specialized in water and soil, both of which were relevant to the situation. Neither of us had been to Eastern Uganda at that point, but we had gotten text messages about other Peace Corps Volunteers helping with the relief effort, and we were told there was a place we could stay when we arrived. We took a bus from Gulu to Kampala, then a matatu from Kampala to Mbale. Once in Mbale town, we walked around until we found the Red Cross office, because they were leading the relief effort. The people in the office said that they had seen other white people traveling through town to help in Bududa in the previous days, but they were not sure where they were staying. They suggested we go to the Mbale taxi park and catch the last matatu headed for Bududa for the day that would leave in the next hour or so.

When the matatu left Mbale, it was late afternoon, and by the time we reached Bududa, the sun was beginning to dip behind the mountains. There was no taxi park at the end of the ride because it was a small village. We walked around asking people for directions. “Have you seen other Peace Corps Volunteers? Which way did they go?” We were directed to the area where the camp was forming. Tents from UNICEF had been erected near the edge of a river to accommodate the influx of food and supplies from international aid organizations. Women were doing laundry in the river, girls were carrying water for cooking, and fires were being started between scattered tents on a field. We walked around, but only saw farmers, not aid workers. Eventually, we saw a young man wearing a Red Cross vest, so we followed him and asked if he knew where we should go. His name was Bosco, and he was from Bududa and worked for the local branch of the Red Cross. His brother was with him, and the two men walked with us around the town, asking people who sometimes housed travelers if they knew where the other white people were staying. People around the village confirmed that they had seen them, but nobody knew where they went. The sky was getting dark, and I was getting uneasy. We didn’t have camping equipment, had no place to sleep, and the last matatu for the day had left. We were going to be spending the night in Bududa, but had no idea where.

We kept walking with Bosco and his brother up a long dirt road away from the camp. He turned off the road and approached a woman. “This is my mother,” he announced proudly. “And this is my father.” His mother invited us inside for tea and we were introduced to several other family members. Bosco explained that they had a spare room they were in the process of building, but it was not finished yet. He asked if we would like to stay there for the night and we graciously accepted. I was taken aback by how kind and welcoming this family was. A child was sent out to buy a mosquito net, since us white people were always getting malaria, and they helped us hang it above the foam mattress in the spare room. They apologized that there was no floor or ceiling yet, but there were walls covered by a corrugated tin roof.

That night was cold. The weather up there in the mountains was radically different from that of the Central Region and the North, which I was acclimated to. Condensation formed on the tin and large drops of cold water dripped on us. Dew formed on the ground below us. Lying there, I couldn’t imagine what we would have done if Bosco and his family had not been so generous. When we got up in the morning, many of the family members had already left for the day, but we took photos with everyone who was still around and sent copies back to them as a small thank you. That was the single most kind and generous encounter with a stranger I had ever experienced. Bosco had never met us, nor had his family, they only knew that we were lost and were there because we were trying to help their community.

Local health worker and family

Typhoid Mary

I spent the week of Thanksgiving 2010 in Kitgum, a town in Northern Uganda, not far from South Sudan. A group of volunteers had gotten together to celebrate the holiday and work on a stove-building project at a local school. After Thanksgiving, I took a bus to Kampala and came down with a high fever, chills, headache, and malaise. I was nauseous, weak, sweaty, and vomiting uncontrollably. While waiting outside where I spent the night for a taxi to the Peace Corps office, I vomited in the gutter. I probably looked like death by the time the Medical Officers saw me. This was my fourth episode with exactly the same symptoms. I had been diagnosed with malaria in a small Ugandan hospital the last time it happened, although it could not be confirmed, and I didn’t have much faith in rural Ugandan health care providers. I had been on antimalarials continuously while in country, but Uganda has several strains of malaria, some of which are resistant to antimalarials, and the drugs aren’t 100% effective.

That week, the Peace Corps Country Director had flown to Headquarters in Washington D.C. for meetings, so one of the two other Americans on the Peace Corps Uganda staff, the Financial Officer, was left in charge. He was a pretty stereotypical numbers guy. He could usually be found buried in a stack of paperwork behind his desk plugging away at a calculator through thick-lensed glasses. He was a very nice man, but did not possess the same leadership qualities as the Country Director, who was a businessman and career CEO. The Financial Officer had gotten a call from the CDC that morning alerting him to a potential Ebola outbreak in Northern Uganda near Kitgum. He was ordered to quarantine the Peace Corps Compound if necessary, and to suspect any Volunteer traveling from that area with a high fever of being infected.

Ebola is a viral hemorrhagic fever known for its high fatality rate and ability to make people bleed from every orifice before dying. It often kills entire villages when there is an outbreak, and the exact etiology and mode of transmission were elusive for decades. The initial symptoms of Ebola are almost identical to the symptoms I had, so when one of the Medical Officers reported my condition, the Financial Officer started freaking out. He came in to see me, panicked, and was clearly afraid I was going to infect everyone in the Peace Corps Compound with a deadly hemorrhagic disease. I thought it was funny, even though I felt like I was dying, because I knew it was just malaria or another tropical recurrent febrile illness since I had three identical episodes previously.

Bon Appétit

When you enter a restaurant in Uganda, you must first ask the owner “Do you have food?” If they say yes, a guessing game similar to Go Fish follows. “Do you have rice?” “No.” “Do you have potatoes?” “No.” “Do you have matooke?” “Yes.” “What sauce do you have?” In Uganda, each meal is composed of a “food” and a “sauce.” More than one food may be ordered with a sauce, but the two components must be present for it to be a meal. Foods are starches or carbohydrates.

They vary by region, but may include rice, potatoes, matooke (mashed green bananas cooked for many hours, the main food in the Central Region), millet bread (which resembles grainy brown Play-Doh), or posho (maize flour cooked with water to form a solid resembling overcooked instant rice). Sauces are proteins, generally served as a soup consistency. Common sauces are beans, peas, goat, fish, chicken, and g-nut sauce (common in the Central Region, mashed peanuts cooked to form a thick purplish sauce). In the North, many of the sauces are cooked using unsweetened peanut butter. One of my favorite meals was greens cooked in the peanut butter sauce with millet bread.

Another food unique to Northern Uganda is edible rat. When locals were asked what distinguishes edible rats from other rats, the best answer was, “because they are big.” The rats are caught out in the bush, then the arms and legs are tied around a big stick like how people prepare a pig for roasting.

In Western Uganda, from time to time there will be news of almost all the men in a single village dying. This sometimes occurs when men poach or eat hippos that have already died of anthrax in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Anthrax is naturally occurring in the hippo’s fresh water habitat, so hippos consume anthrax spores while grazing. It doesn’t always kill the hippos, but consuming meat from infected hippos results in all the men getting anthrax poisoning. Hippo meat is known for being the most delicious meat of all, so it is often consumed in spite of the risk. 

In some Ugandan tribes, women practice a reverse-chivalry of sorts by being vegetarian. By refusing meat and serving it to the men, they are saying that they are less important than the men. This was especially common in rural areas where meat is uncommon due to cost, so it was actually easy for me to continue being a vegetarian while living in Uganda because there is a word in most tribal languages for the female practice of forgoing meat so the men can eat it.


The house I was assigned had a tattered, rusted-through corrugated metal roof, so when you stood inside and looked up, you could see light coming through hundreds of little holes like stars on a night sky. Every time it rained, it rained inside. There was an opening where the roof met the walls that fruit bats had discovered, so they would sleep above me during the day. Partially digested fruit would fall through the papyrus mat that separated my room from the ceiling compartment, then hundreds of large ants would march down the walls to feed on the droppings. Rats also enjoyed the bat droppings, but stayed hidden during daylight. Every night as I tried to fall asleep there would be a loud conversation in my room. While I knew there were most likely multiple bats and multiple rats, I collectively named the bats Bert and the rats Ernie. Bert and Ernie’s conversation would go something like this: “Eeeeeek!” “Meep.” “Eeeeek, Eeeeek, Eeeeek!” “Meep.” “Eeeeek!” “Meep, meep.”

After my first eight months, my village was deemed unsafe by Peace Corps, so my house was dormant for over two months while Peace Corps tried to come up with an alternate assignment for me. When I returned to pack up my remaining belongings to move to my next site, I had my first encounter with a crab spider. I don’t know what species they are or their proper name, but the shape of their body and legs resemble a crab, they can run sideways, and are about 5 inches across, legs included. They can run faster than me and are surprisingly intelligent. I was eventually able to chase that first one out the door with a washing basin, which I selected for its large surface area. I wasn’t sure I would be able to hit it squarely with a shoe after realizing how fast it was, and the last thing I wanted was to miss and have an angry crab spider after me. My house in Western Uganda was frequented by these creatures. There were often standoffs where I would slowly approach, holding a shoe over my head, walking quietly and smoothly to avoid startling it. It would stare up at me with its many eyes, knowing what I was up to, and as I went in with the shoe it would charge my feet so I would jump in the air and run away. Sometimes I won these battles, but often times the crab spider was too smart and too fast.

Geckos are common in many parts of Uganda. They can easily pass through holes in walls around windows and doors, so they come and go as they please and help eat mosquitos and other insects. Uganda has several types of cockroaches, including giant cockroaches that can fly. These guys are about 3 inches long, and often feed in latrines. One night when I was staying in Gulu with Steve, a giant cockroach ran across his face as he was sleeping. I woke up as Steve jumped out of bed, grabbed a shoe and started cursing and running around the room like a madman. “What are you doing? Go back to sleep,” I groaned. Steve was irate and determined to kill the thing. After wounding it when it ran out from under the bed, a gecko seized the opportunity for a large meal.

School where Mary McQuilkin was a health science teacher during her United States Peace Corps service in Uganda
Peace and me in her dormitory at Kikandwa Secondary School where I was a teacher. She was one of the granddaughters of my landlord in Nakyerongoosa.