Murchison Falls National Park

This year I took two trips to Uganda's most popular national park - Murchison Falls National Park. We took a group of 30, who came for The Unity Initiative, on safari and I had to take an earlier trip to the park to hash out logistics for the group, so we made it into a family weekend.

This park remains one of the most popular game parks because the delta attracts animals, so you don't have to drive long to find good game sightings. We also managed to snag the best park ranger, who spotted a leopard hanging in a tree from an unimaginable distance.

I've been on safari more times than I can count now, but it never gets old and has become a favorite way for our family to get out of the city. There is always something about the wild that will beckon us. Here is a collection of some of my favorite photos of those two trips.

The 21 Best Things About Living in Uganda

In the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday, I've put together a list of my favorite things about living in Uganda.  Sure, life abroad brings its own frustrations, but Uganda offers a few unique perks that you just can't get back home.  See what I mean:

1. The natural beauty - from stunning game parks teeming with wild animals to waterfalls, crater lakes, and green rolling hills, there is a reason Uganda was named the top tourist destination by Lonely Planet in 2012.  After 4 years, I still have unticked destinations on my Uganda bucket list!

2. You can fill your home with handcrafted decor at a great price - I just love searching the markets for something unique for my home.  It always feels like a scavenger hunt and you never know what goodies you may find.  I also have to hold myself back whenever I go into Banana Boat so I don't buy the whole store.

3. Kampala's restaurant scene is hard to beat - There are so many good restaurants with great atmospheres and open-air spaces, all for a fraction of the price you would pay for the same quality at home.  Choose between Indian, Italian, Persian, Lebanese, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Turkish, French, Greek, West African, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and many more.  All because of Uganda's...

4. Diversity - Uganda is the most ethnically diverse country in the world.  Not only are there expatriates from all around the globe, but Uganda itself has more than 40 ethnic groups.  This means there's opportunity to learn different languages, visit many different places of worship, and just meet all kinds of lovely people.

5. You never have to buy a new pair of shoes - There are cobblers in the street, all fine craftsmen awaiting your business, who will repair your shoddy shoes for next to nothing.  Friendly tip: those signs reading "cobra" are the guys you're looking for.

6. The purest honey and most natural peanut butter - It's so cute when you see your friends back home paying out the wazoo at fancy foods stores for natural peanut butter and unrefined honey.  Those dukkas on the street or that guy pushing a bicycle with a box on the back will sell you the real stuff, locally made and totally unrefined.

7. The randomness and laughs it brings - I've seen naked men in the middle of the road, a street preacher with an umbrella hat, and a child walking down the street in a lion costume, not to mention the ridiculously huge loads on bodas, crazy sayings on the back of matatus, misspellings on signs, and t-shirts with messages the wearer just doesn't understand.  There's always some comic relief around the next corner!

I wonder how fried emirates taste?

Who wants to see the New Years' firewax?

Who wants to see the New Years' firewax?

8. The climate - I come from a farming family, so they often ask me about the weather, but I give the same answer each time - it's warm, beautiful, and sunny.  That is, until the...

9. Rain - There really is just something about those rains down in Africa.  The rainstorms pull you into cuddle mode and you don't have to resist it because it's absolutely socially acceptable to stay at home until the rain stops.

10. You can design your own wardrobe with clothes that fit you perfectly, all while feeling good about supporting a local tailor - Browse Pinterest for inspiration, buy your own fabric, and you can have exactly what you want by working with one of Uganda's many fashion designers and tailors.

11. The mix of traditional culture and modernity - Get a feel for traditional Uganda by visiting one of the many different cultural sites, driving deep into a village, or visiting one of the many tribes still living life according to their traditional heritage - like the Karamajong, the Ik, and the Batwa, to name a few.  But when you want your fill of modern art and music or you just want to visit a fancy mall, Kampala has all you need.

An Ik woman, smoking a pipe

Acacia Mall

12. Pirated movies/TV shows - A whole season of your favorite show for less than $2?  Um...ok.

13. Boda bodas - Sure, many of us lament the presence of bodas on the road and how irresponsible they can be sometimes, but you have to confess they are quite convenient.  I've found myself in many cities at home, wanting to flag down a motorcycle and hop on the back to quickly take me to my destination.  And when you get a favored driver, it's like having a clone when he can run your errands for you!

14. Tropical fruits - pineapples, avocados, and mangoes - oh my! 

15. You get to be your own pharmacist - You get malaria back home and you're stuck in a hospital for days while the doctors freak out and eventually stick you with a bill of thousands of dollars.  When in Uganda, self-diagnosis is a beautiful thing and your wallet hardly felt that malaria treatment purchased at the pharmacy around the corner.  While you're there, pick up some sleeping pills, inhalers, and other goodies you'd give an arm and a leg for at home.

16. It's a birder's paradise - With over 1,000 species of birds in Uganda, even those who don't know a stork from a sunbird will appreciate the stunning colors flitting all around them.

 
 

17. It's so easy to grow things - Whether you love house plants, landscaping with flowers and tropical plants, or having a vegetable or herb garden, you have so many options in Uganda and it doesn't take much effort.  If I can grow things, anyone can!

18. You can afford to hire help - Provide a good job for someone and get help in your garden, your home, or with your kids.  It's win-win!

19. Handcrafted furniture made exactly how you want it - Work with a local carpenter to have your house furniture made and you can get beautiful results with some of Uganda's finest wood.  Just make sure your carpenter is using dry wood!

20. Natural skin care products - Shea butter is your skin's best friend and it's made right here in northern Uganda.  Use a natural loofah in the shower and a pumice stone for your calloused feet and soon you'll feel like you had a day at the spa.

21. Ugandans - It won't take long for you to feel welcome in Uganda - you'll literally be greeted everywhere you go with a sincere "You are welcome."  If you frequent the same grocery store or restaurants regularly, you'll likely be remembered and soon you'll be whistling the Cheers theme song as you walk down the street: Where everybody knows your name...and they're always glad you came...

What is this list missing?  If you live in Uganda, what are your favorite things?

A weekend of solitude

Solitude is the soul’s holiday, an opportunity to stop doing for others and to surprise and delight ourselves instead.
— Katrina Kenison

It's been a bit of a crazy year.

We took a month-long trip across America, came home to Uganda, caught our breath, and have had visitors for 3 months straight (awesome visitors, for the record).  In the middle of it all, we've had 2 youth leadership conferences - one in Goma, DR Congo and one in Entebbe, Uganda, not to mention I've tried to keep up with my regular work.

I'm poor at disciplining myself to make time for solitude amongst the crazy.  It's something I am improving at, pole pole (slowly slowly), but when I wake up in the morning with a to-do list in my head, it's hard for me to sit down, push that list to the side, and just be in silent solitude.  But when I don't, I find myself more short-tempered, more easily stressed, and less productive.

So I set aside a whole weekend just for myself to rest, reflect, recover, and come back to myself and my creativity.  Last Friday, I headed down to a Lake Mburo, a small national park with lots of nature to take in - a great place to escape from the chaos of Kampala.  And I just stopped to take time with myself.

 
 
Saddlebill stork
 
 

What I took on my Weekend of Solitude:

My camera (duh)
A sketch book and pencils
A yoga mat
2 good books
My journal
Incense and meditation music
A knitting project
Oil pastels and paper
The most comfortable clothes in my closet

The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.
— Albert Einstein

Lesser-known Uganda sights: Mabamba Swamp and Reptile Village

I had a visit from a special guest last week - my mother.  This was her third time in Uganda, so she said she didn't want to do a lot of sight-seeing or take any big safaris.  She told me she just wanted to relax and see my home, but during her time here, we still were able to see a few of Uganda's lesser-known sights and I was able to tick a couple of things off my Uganda bucket list.

On her first morning, Mom was a trooper.  She woke up super early and we headed out towards Mpigi with Cathy, my mother-in-law.  We were eventually directed to Mabamba swamp, supposedly one of the best places in Uganda to see the rare Shoebill stork and many other birds.

I'll admit, this trip didn't exactly live up to my expectations, but in the end, we got what we came for.  The guides we hired were certainly below average and we found ourselves stuck in the middle of the swamp, searching for the Shoebill while it rained on us.  I looked longingly over at the other boats with tourists in them, one that had its own large umbrella and was moving swiftly through the swamp with three men in each vessel to help the boat along.  We had one man in our boat and we were not making good progress.

Eventually, though, we spotted the Shoebill.  Of course, the swiftly-moving-umbrella-boat had a beautiful shot of the bird, just a few yards from it, while we were trying to peek through the reeds to get a sighting.  But soon we were able to move beyond the reeds and see the huge, rare bird quite close.  For all the rain, cold, and poor guides, it was my best sighting of the Shoebill in nature and I was quite happy we were able to see the main attraction!

My advice: go to Mabamba with a real tour guide company and be the guy in the umbrella boat!

 
 

On Mom's last day in town, we headed toward the airport early and took a quick detour to the Uganda Reptile Village in Entebbe.  The reptile village helps educate the public about reptiles while rescuing many snakes, tortoises, monitor lizards, and other reptiles.

It was definitely a great way to spend an afternoon, in awe of the many snakes that exist in Uganda and learning to respect their potentially deadly defenses.  We had a great guide who knew his facts and he even got a viper out of its cage to play with, despite our protestations!

Uganda is a country full of life, and you don't have to go to the game parks to see it!  These two short day trips showed us new forms of life that exist in this beautiful country.  They may not be the big game on the savannahs, but the birds and the reptiles are still fascinating nonetheless!

Inspiring Woman - Sister Rosemary

Last year, I helped develop a leadership development curriculum for university students and it was my privilege to be assigned to finding great women leaders who exemplified each leadership characteristic we covered.  Unfortunately, I was only afforded 21 slots for 21 women, although there were so many more to feature.  While reading and writing about these women, I felt as if they were surrounding me, whispering in my ear all their inspirational words and encouragement.  I felt their courage seep into me as I read their stories of bravery, conquest, and compassion and I couldn't wait to share with our students what I had found, particularly about the many incredible women in East Africa.

Earlier this month, during a conference for university student leaders throughout East Africa, we had the honor of hearing from a friend of ours who is one of these East African women powerhouses - Sister Rosemary.

Sister Rosemary began her work in Northern Uganda during Joseph Kony's reign of terror.  She provided a safe haven for the young women and girls affected by Kony's violent army, teaching them crucial skills for self-reliance, recovery, and prosperity.  She and the other sisters at Saint Monica's Vocational School humbly worked with these women for several years before anyone recognized the impact of her work...but that has all changed.  In 2007, she was named a CNN Hero and just this year, she was named one of the top 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine, nominated by Forest Whitaker.  While staying with a friend in San Diego earlier this year, we turned on the Colbert Report and watched her challenge Stephen Colbert to a boxing match while raising awareness for the #BringBackOurGirls campaign.  She has since been on a demanding speaking schedule in the U.S., spreading her joyful spirit everywhere she goes while sharing her inspiring story of bravery and compassion.

In February last year, I joined Sister Rosemary and other African friends in Virginia for a gathering, which happened to be the same time as the super bowl.  I asked her who she was cheering for - the Ravens or the 49ers?  "Oh I can't watch this and I can't cheer for either team,"  she responded, "because I have friends on both teams and I don't want either to lose!"

Indeed, Sister Rosemary has true friends on multiple teams in the NFL and the NBA, through her connection with the organization Pros For Africa.  When I was with her a couple weeks ago, I asked her about the many issues the NFL and its players have faced lately with domestic violence, child abuse, etc. and if she could play any role in speaking into these issues with the players and the league.  She brought up the case of Adrian Peterson, one of the players with whom she has a personal relationship, and although she acknowledged the troublesome actions of his abuse toward his child, she also reminded me to have compassion for these players, many of whom never had great role models themselves. 

This unique woman, a nun from a village in northern Uganda, who has helped countless young women recover from the horrors of a brutal war, now has influence on some of the most famous people in my own country - the sports stars who so many young people look up to.  She is influential, indeed.

So with all her international fame, Sister Rosemary decided to spend an afternoon with us at our Africa Youth Leadership Forum, speaking to the upcoming East African youth leaders.  Of all our speakers over the 4 days of the conference, I know she was the most loved and inspiring.  Most of these students had never heard of her, but after listening to her speak and share her story, she quickly became a friend and a role model to all.

I encourage you to purchase her book Sewing Hope and learn more about this incredible woman.