The Source of the Nile

Day 603 – 24 October, 2016

A reasonable halfway point between Lake Bunyoni and Nairobi was Jinja, a small hamlet located directly on the Nile River not far from Lake Victoria, often sited as the source of the Nile. Because I had been more consumed with seeing gorillas than I had with any other activity on the overland tour, I had neglected to recognize the significance of a stop in Jinja. We arrived on a Monday afternoon, thoroughly jostled in the truck after two days drive from Bunyoni. After a rather long briefing from the camp management regarding available activities – rafting or kayaking on grade 5 rapids and lots of other water activities that promised to give us a good dose of parasites, all of which were outside my spending limit and interest level, – we decided as a group to board a Sunset Panoramic Cruise on the Nile (better known as a booze cruise).

The cruise was due to depart at 5pm and would last until 7pm so once we were all dressed up as much as a campsite in Africa would allow, several naive souls and a few professional booze cruisers boarded the double decker boat. Now I have been on a booze cruise a few times in my life, but it’s been awhile so when I carried a water bottle and ordered a beer to start, I was ridiculed for not playing my cards right, an amateur error. Obviously, the goal is to get your money’s worth and at $45USD in Uganda, you would have to drink about 90 beers in two hours to recover your expense. The much more economical way to approach a booze cruise is to drink straight liquor in the form of gin shots. Everyone knows that! Wait….GIN shots?! Instigated by Larissa and one other who doesn’t want her mother to find out (wink!) rounds of shots flew around the deck. Photo and video evidence of the night shows shots turned into pretty horrendous dance moves turned into a treacherous crawl back up the stairs from the boat to the camp turned into synchronized vomiting turned into limbs hanging out of tents after the occupants had collapsed. Only a couple of stubborn cruisers who declined the shots escaped unscathed, but fortunately, the only true victims of the night were James’ camera and the bushes that had James-shaped imprints up the entire walkway.

Needless to say, the following day that was meant to put us all out on the water immersed in adventure sports left many of us nursing solid hangovers lounging around camp chairs or sleeping in the grass. By early afternoon, the tide was beginning to turn and some life finally started pulsing back into our sorry bunch. Jodie, Joel, and I were still a little skeptical of the parasites we had been warned against, but decided stand-up paddle boarding seemed like a good cheap-ish way to get on the water without getting in it. Schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia or snail fever, is a disease caused by parasitic flatworms that can infect the urinary tract or intestines of unsuspecting victims when they come in to contact with fresh water that has been contaminated with the parasites.  Early symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, and blood in urine, but long term effects can be liver damage, kidney failure, and death.  Seeing as the parasite exists in every body of fresh water on the entire continent of Africa (except for Lake Bunyoni) and up to 210 million people can be infected in up to one year, I couldn’t summon the courage to jump in.  The SUPs were extremely solid, yet I couldn’t help but cringe if I felt the murky Nile water splash my legs or toes. So many dams have been built that the river is virtually useless for transport, but that left it free of motor traffic and the current was subtle. We paddled to the other side to greet the bird life and monitor lizards who otherwise seemed relatively undisturbed by human development. From this vantage point, possible to see other campsites downriver where people were swimming with rope swings and slides, it seems the residents of sleepy Jinja are happy to use the dam to their full advantage and encourage tourists to get wet.

The next day, with an interest in interacting more closely with the community and fully recovered from the big night out, 11 of us signed up for a community school project. I think our hope was to spend time with some local children playing games, but after a long drive to a rural community, we were handed paintbrushes and no doubt leaded paint to freshen up the classroom while the children were at recess. Curious and shy faces watched us from the doorway before being shooed away by the coordinator. We painted two adjoining classrooms in a poorly ventilated room in relatively short order before we were directed to additionally paint a storage room with absolutely no ventilation and crammed full with old furniture and an average junk pile. It was impossible to negotiate the junk with a paint brush when you can’t breathe and there are ten other people trying to do the same. I aborted the mission when a massive fumes headache threatened to lay me flat on the ground. Painting completed we all sat outside trying to catch our breath as timid children, slowly at first and then suddenly we were surrounded, came closer to investigate the 11 strangers covered in oil-based paint. I think Larissa was the first to take a selfie, but as soon as the kids, aged from 5-8, saw their own faces reflected back on her screen, she was surrounded by more than she could possibly entertain on her own. The once reserved group became more bold, eager to take photos making goofy faces or hand gestures or wide grins. Over all too fast, we left those children in their stained or torn school uniforms, protecting their coveted school books under one bony arm while the other waved goodbye in big exaggerated enthusiasm. It is humbling to see those that have so little can be blessed with such a positive and happy attitude and an honest zest for life.

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