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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Mad Rush Through East Africa ¨C A Summary / On Way to Libya Now (Country Number 170)

Mad Rush Through East Africa ¨C A Summary
Now at Dubai Airport lounge on my way to Libya, my 170th country! Since I left Ethiopia, I have made my way very quickly through Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya. Over the next 2 0†5 weeks, I will be exploring one of North Africa¡¯s most fascinating but little known nations with my friends from Singapore, Gary and Kenneth.
My time in East Africa, though an easy region to travel in, has not been my best during Odyssey2 due to no fault of anyone. I was unfortunately stuck by salmonella, which is usually caused by food contamination, and had suffered from a series of fever and flu. I have been forced to take things easy and have also not written much. Regretfully, I have also not been able to attend the funeral of an uncle, who passed away suddenly during this period. It reminded me of my last odyssey in 2002, during which a close uncle passed away too. Occurrences like that continuously reminded me of the fragileness of life and that I should spend more time with my loved ones when I am in Singapore.
I had also originally intended to visit Burundi from Rwanda. Unfortunately, fighting broke out between government and rebel forces, shattering a two year ceasefire, two days before I was due to arrive in Bujumbura, the capital. Bujumbura was shelled by rebels, and with the subsequent cancelling of an UN peace mission and of Brussels Airlines flight to Bujumbura, I decided that it was too risky to fly in by Rwandair Express (which was still flying into the city). If subsequent fighting forces other airlines to cancel all flights out of Bujumbura while I was there, I might be trapped in Burundi and risked messing up my Libyan trip. Hence I had to abandon my ticket into Bujumbura and flew direct to Nairobi from Rwanda (upon payment of a ticket amendment/penalty charge).
Miscellaneous aspects of my East African journey:
Uganda: See blog entries and photos at http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Uganda
- Pearl of Africa, as Churchill called this country at the heart of Africa. Former British colony blessed with fertile soil and industrious people, Uganda was unfortunately wrecked by civil conflict for many years, including a decade of misrule by the notoriously murderous regime of Idi Amin. Since the early 1990s, the country has been on the road to recovery, and tourists and businessmen are now rediscovering the country¡¯s beautiful nature and investment potential.
- Met up with Mei Kiew, a course-mate at university I contacted through a mutual friend, Hway Lee. Mei Kiew is the really brave one ¨C who else among my batch in uni works full-time in Africa? Mei Kiew helps run a bee farm here in faraway Uganda. Hurrah to her! Living here beats a short foray like mine.
- Visited Mei Kiew¡¯s bee farm and there we met her boss Lester and three SIngapore TV/film crew in Uganda to do a programme on her boss Lester, as a Singaporean living in Uganda. This is part of a series known as Ï¡ÓÎ¼Ç or Find Me A Singaporean! Among the TV/film crew was Belinda Lee (ÀîÐÄîÚ).
- Kampala is a city with really crowded sidewalks. One can get intimated if this was one's first trip to Africa. However, unlike West Africans who tend to be loud and seem to enjoy boasting and exaggerated talk (ok, that's a generalisation), Ugandans are incredibly humble, polite and softspoken. In fact, they speak so softly that I could hardly hear them. I had to ask people to repeat again and again. I know I am a bit deaf but Mei Siew also concurred with my observation.
- I went to the Source of the Victoria Nile in Jinja on a day trip. The week before, I went to the source of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia¡­getting a bit bored with all these sources of the Nile thing but at least the Ugandans have a signboard where you can have a picture taken. The Ethiopians just collect the exorbitant boat fee and your picture could well have been any river mouth.
- Also visited the Kasubi Tombs of the Buganda Kings, which is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Very small. Buganda was the largest kingdom that existed on Uganda soil when the British took over the region as a protectorate. The king of Buganda that reigned at the time of independence also became Uganda¡¯s first president. However, he clashed with Prime Minister Obote over various issues, including Buganda¡¯s autonomy within Uganda, and was eventually overthrown by Obote, who made himself president and abolished all the four traditional kingdoms within Uganda.
- Uganda in general has heard of Singapore, mainly for 2 reasons: 1) Singapore is sometimes held as an example of a country that has succeeded in development. 2) In 1971, President Obote was overthrown by Army Chief Idi Amin when the former was in Singapore attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. 3) One of Idi Amin¡¯s worst torture cells was called the ¡°Singapore Cell¡±. It was said those who went into the Singapore cell would never emerge.
Rwanda ¨C see blog entries and photos at http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Rwanda
- A small country devastated by many years of ethnic conflict, and was the scene of the 1994 Genocide, when more than 1 million people were massacred by radical militia while the world did nothing. Since then, the country has been steadily reconstructing under one of the region¡¯s most progressive governments.
- I met up with Yuri, whom I met (and her husband Toshikazu) on the Bamako-Addis Ababa flight not too long ago. This friendly Japanese couple are environmental consultants with the UN and a NGO in Rwanda. They have invited me to stay at their place in Kigali and together we drove around the western part of this beautiful nation.
- We drove (very, very scenic through volcano-flanked valleys) on Mitos' car to Gishenyi on Lake Kivu, right on the border with the war-thorn Democratic Republic of the Congo. More on this below:
- Ruhengeri: a small town in northwestern Rwanda which is the base for travelers to view the highly endangered mountain gorillas at the Volcanoes National Park on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The gorilla permit now costs US$500 and it allows only for 1 hour of gorilla viewing. Many travel agencies quote between US$1000 and US$3000 including hotel and 4WD transport. If one uses public transport and hitch on national park vehicles plus staying at budget hotel, the total cost would amount to US$600 to 700. Even then, I think this is horrendously expensive compared to a Galapagos cruise or an East African safari where one sees more creatures for a much longer period of time. I decided to give the gorillas a miss. In any case, I was beginning to have a series of on-off fever and flu due to the salmonella infection, and was definitely not in a position to visit the gorillas (the tourist office forbids any sick persons to visit the national park for fear of spreading any virus to the creatures).
The town of Ruhengeri is surrounded by spectacular volcanoes and tea plantation. Unfortunately, there was too much cloud that day (it¡¯s raining season!) which shrouded what could have been a fantastic view.
- Gisenyi is a Rwanda city on the border with Congo (DRC). The DRC city of Goma is just across the border ¨C both cities are almost twin cities side by side on the northern shore of Lake Kivu, which is ringed by tall volcanoes. Together with Toshi and Yuri Mito, I went to the border post and observed border traffic for a while. It certainly looked very relaxed and hardly looked like a border with past and present conflicts. We even chatted to immigration officials for a while.
I sat with a Congolese businessman on my Entebbe-Kigali flight a few days ago and he told me the situation in Goma region is still fluid. Although the city is under the control of the Congolese government, rebels and all sorts of rival militia and local bandits control parts of the countryside. In fact, Congolese government soldiers are sometimes robbers themselves. They often demand lots of money from people who cross the border and sometimes stage kidnappings for ransom as well. So foreigners are not advisable to cross the border.
We drove along the beaches of Gisenyi along the shores of Lake Kivu. Wealthy Rwandans have built beautiful mansions along the lake (the Congolese shoreline in Goma has quite a few fancy mansions too) and there were many people suntaning and playing beach volleyball on the beach. We had late lunch at 5-star Hotel Lake Kivu Serena where rooms start from US$150. The Rwandan elite and white-as-snow Western expats (probably NGOs and diplomats on a break from humanitarian missions ¨C what irony!) sun-tan on the hotel¡¯s private beach front and a few Mainland Chinese businessmen were sipping cocktail at the poolside bar. In the lake itself, we saw the newly constructed methane rigs that are supposed to extract methane from the lake¡¯s bottom for use as energy (the methane gas, if released suddenly onto the lake¡¯s surface, could potentially poison to death all the inhabitants of Gisenyi and Goma). In the horizon were the greenish-blue silhouette of mountains in the Congo where the civil war still rages on. It is surreal that peace and fighting take place so near to each other, on the separate banks of this narrow lake.
As we left the area in early evening, we saw the glowing light of lava flowing from the summit of Mt Goma, a volcano which destroyed half of Goma city a few years ago. This week, a plane crashed in Goma killing many, and some blamed that on the fact that the runway of Goma airport is now only 0.8km, as 2km of the runway was covered by volcanic lava and has never been rebuilt. Alas - How do you expect a government deeply corrupted and engaged in fighting a civil war to bother about rebuilding a civilian airport runway? One would have thought they would need the airport for military purposes too, but well, Africa behaves in strange ways.
- In Kigali, I visited the famous Hotel des Mille Collines (Hotel of a Thousand Hills, in French), which was the hotel featured in the Oscar-winning movie, Hotel Rwanda, about the Rwanda Genocide of 1994. Also visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. A moving exhibition and memorial site devoted to the terrible events of 1994 of which the international community was guilty of not helping the Rwandans and allowing 1 million people to be massacred. Security was very strict here and they used detectors to scan everything. The week before was Genocide Memorial Week and two incidents occurred: One person threw a grenade at the entrance of the Memorial during a ceremony and one security guard was killed. During the second incident, a suspect drove a vehicle into a marching crowd on their way to mourn the victims of the Genocide, injuring a number of people. There are still many people who deny the Genocide and want to destroy the current order in Rwanda.
- Rwanda has a metered taxi company. Rates are higher than non-metered ones but at least foreigners would not be discriminated against. That¡¯s the difference between a country determined to be progressive and developed and those which prefer to stay undeveloped in order to take advantage of short term dishonesties.
Kenya: see blog entries and photos at http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Kenya
- Rainy weather for most of my stay in Kenya. Nairobi has lots of skyscrapers and busy people rushing around like any financial centres. Hottest thing in town is the massive IPO of Safaricom, a local mobile company. Lots of people queuing up for forms and all that. Could be any major Asian capital except for the skin colour.
- The centre of Nairobi was full of annoying safari touts. I explained I didn¡¯t want to do any major safaris, but even day trips to nearby Nairobi National Park wasn¡¯t cheap. They said the usual cheap package tours no longer exist now because it was low season, plus there were few tourists ¨C most scared away by the recent post-election violence. I spoke to various touts and agencies and eventually agreed on US$160 (excluding Carnivore meat dinner buffet ¨C about KSH 2000 (US$33)) for full day excursion to NBO National Park, Sheldrick Trust, Bomas and Carnivore.
- Kenya has long been a major hub city in East Africa. The city is also the regional financial and business capital. It is full of skyscrapers and numerous international hotels and malls. The recent post-election violence has, however, frightened away many tourists. I came across very few tourists here, compared to Kampala of Uganda, which normally plays second fiddle to Nairobi when it comes to tourism. Nairobi is also notorious for robberies and law and order issues. It is often nicknamed ¡°Nairobbery¡± ¨C so one does not walk on the streets at night. It is, however, ok during the day to walk around the city centre, which is full of busy office workers.
- I visited Uhuru Gardens (¡°Freedom Gardens¡±) in the suburbs. This was where independence was declared in 1963. A huge monument was built here in 1983 by then President Arap Moi to celebrate 20 years of independence. Across the road is the enormous Kibera Slum, Africa¡¯s second largest slum where 1.5 million people live in pathetically squalor conditions, all in spite of the promises freedom was supposed to bring. Next to Uhuru Gardens are a huge hypermart, the modern temple to middle-class consumerism; the Wilson Domestic Airport, where light private aircraft belonging to Kenya¡¯s rich and famous land and take off with a surprising frequency; and the Carnivore Restaurant, an enormous barbecue meat eat-all-you-can restaurant which is rated one of the world¡¯s 50 best restaurants. What an amazing contrast with the massive slum across the road.
- Nairobi National Park - A huge park just next to the capital. One of the few (if not only) national parks in the world where lions and giraffes share the scene with skyscrapers in the horizon. Got up early and Milton, the travel agency driver picked me up at 6:45am for the excursion. Very cold and rainy weather. NBO is very temperate in climate ¨C it¡¯s like England with wild animals. No wonder the English settlers love this place and wanted to implement their own version of Apartheid/minority rule here, before Jomo Kenyatta (founding father of Kenya) succeeded in achieving independence for this country.
I saw many animals, such as the eland (a giant antelope), hartebeest (another kind of antelope), ostrich, giraffe and the African buffalo. Unfortunately, I searched in vain for lions but could not find any. They must be hiding in the bush!
OK, that¡¯s all I have to say. Apologies for the disorganized writeup this time. More from me from Libya, inshallah!
Cheers,
Wee Cheng

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