Global Health Immersion: Part 3

by Ryan Ross

It’s 11 AM; the melodic roar of birdsong and jungle creatures is so overwhelming it distracts me from the blinding equatorial sun beating down on my unprotected skin. Thick mahogany trees and draping vines form a dense forest resembling the kinds of images Joseph Conrad or H. Rider Haggard conjured up when they cemented darkest Africa in our minds.  I am in Bwindi National Park in Eastern Uganda, just steps from the Congo, here to see wild mountain gorillas in one of their last remaining natural habitats.

My party treks for almost two hours before our guide spots the family group.  We are so excited that we don’t realize we are standing in the warpath of safari ants.  The tiny insects scurry up the inside of our pants, into our shirts and down our socks.  They sink their massive jaws into our flesh, drawing blood and screams.  But the creepy, painful encounter only adds to the authenticity of our experience – exploring the jungles of Africa should not be without its danger.

After dispatching with the ants we finally approach our main target.  Our guide tells us that we can’t get within eight meters of the gorillas because of their susceptibility to human infections; this rule proves to be taken very liberally.  We start on the group’s periphery, but before long the 20 or so males, females, and juveniles begin to move freely all around us.  Within 10 minutes we are completely surrounded by the apes.  At one point we stop to watch the silverback as he feasts on tree roots.  My guide says, “watch him, I can tell he is about to walk right towards you.”  Not 2 minutes go by before the proverbial 800-pound gorilla saunters within arm’s length of me.

Although I’ve seen gorillas at the zoo and on television, I was not prepared for how human they truly were. Sharing 98.4% of the same genes as us, their faces revealed a haunting spectrum of emotions and expressions.  At times they appeared to play and joke with one another, and even carry out conversations.  The gorillas barely acknowledged our presence but when the odd one would break character and look me in the eyes, I couldn’t help but feel chills.  Deep behind that penetrating gaze was a gentle, sentient soul.

Visiting Bwindi was a nice break from Kampala and my work at Twezimbe, but the experience still offered opportunity to widen my grasp of global health and development.  With my knowledgeable driver Sam, the 500 km car ride across Uganda gave us ample time to discuss the changing scenery as well as African politics, tribalism, and inequality.

The more I learn about Africa, the more I realize how much tribal and colonial history still influence contemporary life here.  When the Europeans colonized Africa, they drew arbitrary borders across a continent home to thousands of independent tribes and ethnic groups.  These new boundaries divided and reordered societies, sometimes pairing mortal enemies within the same state.  In their quest for control, Europeans were quick to exploit indigenous governance systems.  Their manipulation often distorted traditional power balances, exacerbating ethnic tensions still present to this day.  The Hutu-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda is one prime example – the French having empowered the minority Tutsis over the Hutu majority, inciting resentment and distrust between the two ethnic groups that lasted for decades until it came to a head in 1994.

As African colonies transitioned to independence, the heterogeneity of their people and cultures proved a huge challenge to finding solidarity.  Many Africans felt more allegiance to their tribe then their nation, creating conflict when politicians of opposing tribes and backgrounds attempted to exert their power.

Uganda itself is made up of dozens of tribes, with the Bugandan Kingdom in the central region being the largest.  For centuries Buganda held a monopoly on economic and political might.  The British subsequently used Buganda to govern their new Uganda colony.  After independence, competing Presidents from various tribes slowly dissolved Buganda’s power, and now the various tribal kings are used mostly as political puppets by the central government.  However, ethnic loyalties remain, especially among the Buganda, who seem conflicted by a nostalgia for their past dominance and the hope for a prosperous united Uganda.

As I drove west out of Buganda, the landscape changed dramatically from verdant, swampy farmland to dry, savannah-like pastures.  Because of its proximity to Lake Victoria, the central region enjoys a moist climate with abundant rainfall and fertile soil.  Traveling west away from the lake, annual rainfall diminishes and the landscape starts to resemble the rolling beige hills of Southern California.  Unlike Bugandans who are subsistence farmers, the people here are cattle herders and pastoralists.  My driver Sam explained to me that owning cattle is a sign of wealth in Uganda, implying that these westerners are richer than their central counterparts.

The more distance we put between us and Kampala, the more developed the communities became – roads were smoother, schools and public institutions appeared to be in higher abundance, and everything just looked cleaner.  Sam explained to me that this is the region where President Museveni comes from.  Not surprisingly most Bugandans I’ve talked to believe the western regions receive generous favoritism by the President and his cronies.  On the other hand, Sam, a westerner, echoed sentiments I’ve heard from many of his regional compatriots, that western tribes are inherently harder working and ambitious, unlike Bugandans who are still drunk off their prior dominance.  Most of the tribalism I have encountered so far seems to be of this fairly benign nature, between Bugandans and western tribes, and thankfully bereft of any hateful racial rhetoric.

On a more somber note, I have realized that there is little purity left to the environment here. In my ten-hour car ride from Kampala to Bwindi, every square foot of usable land seen through my window is repurposed for agriculture, housing, or some other type of commerce.  The iconic wildlife and abundant natural environment I’ve come to associate so closely with Africa is now confined to just a few national parks and preserves.  Every river or pond we pass is sludge-brown and filled with debris. The border of the thick, majestic Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is almost comically abrupt, with villages and crops edging closer and closer like a licentious old man.  Environmental degradation is complete in Uganda, and my gut tells me that most of Africa shares the same fate.