Denial is considered one of the primitive defense mechanisms. Just like repression or acting out, denial is one of our brain's ways to micromanage emotions we cannot process rationally or intellectually. It is a defense mechanism I have come to know well in my time in Rwanda.
Denial was how I handled my home sickness when I first arrived in Rwanda: "No I don't mind cold showers, warm drinks, or the gecko that share my bed. No I don't miss my friends or family or life at home." Now that I am approaching the end of my time in this amazing place denial is again taking hold of my thoughts" "No I won't miss the sunset over the thousand hills, the fresh pineapple at the end of a two-hour meal, or the laughter that accompanies the idiosyncrasies of living in Africa. No I won't miss my friends, my adopted Rwandan family here at PSF, or my Kigali life." Concurrent with this denial that my time here is coming to an end is a concerted effort to check things off my East Africa to do list.
Last weekend I put my energy to good use as I boarded an overnight bus in Kigali with my roommate Yvonne to make the 10 hour drive to Kampala, Uganda. This trip across the border has been something I wanted to do not necessarily because Kampala is an amazing metropolis, but because of its close proximity to Jinja, the reputed source of the Nile. So, after arriving in Kampala at 4:00 AM we took a power nap in time to be picked up at 6:00 AM for our day of rafting. The ride to the countryside showed us that though Rwanda and Uganda are similar, but there are subtle differences between the countries. Street food, which has been virtually banned in Rwanda for hygiene purposes, is prevalent in Uganda and its hills are lacking compared to those we enjoy in Rwanda.
After the bus ride we arrived at the rafting company for our six-hour trip down de’Nile. Brilliantly, the rafting company offers two options, mild or wild, and recommends that people of similar adventure-seeking level pile in the boats together. Taking the “mild” option left Yvonne and I in a boat with four Dutch girls, 2 Canadians, and our Ugandan guide. Truth be told, the mild option was at first more than I bargained for as we jetted off down a class 3 rapid. Some safety training eased some of my fears but I knew that bigger rapids were in my future.
We jetted down many class 4 and class 5 rapids that were also listed in the guidebooks as “waterfalls” that other tourists can visit on the Nile. And though the adrenalin rush was great, the real excitement of the trip was on the peaceful bits between rapids during which time you could swim in the Nile eye level with the birds or sit in the boat watching locals clean their clothes with rocks or bath and play in the river. Though the rapids were, in my mind, an interruption to the peace of the raft, by the end of the journey I was actually enjoying going over the water.
After a quick brochette, chipati and drink by the Nile we left Jinja headed back to Kampala for a night on the town. Though we were utterly exhausted I denied my tiredness as we headed out for dinner and some of the Kampala nightlife. Despite the recent tragedies during the World Cup Finals the nightlife in Kampala is still remarkable. There are delicious restaurants to enjoy, music booming out of every corner, and plenty of street vendors selling food for hungry late-nighters. Following our taste of dinner we got a brief taste of the nightlife before heading back to our hostel for bed.
Our early 1:00 AM bedtime was in part due to exhaustion after being on the river all day and partly due to another early morning in Kampala. We arose before sunrise yet again to take a cab to some of the more scenic sights in Kampala. Our first stop was at the Nyamirembe Cathedral that conveniently coincided with sunrise mass. Though it was disappointing to not see the inside of this large hilltop structure. The gospel music pouring out of the church was a lovely background sound for the sunrise over the city.
Following our trip to the hilltop cathedral we headed to another precipice to see another religious structure—the Kampala Mosque. Situated on the top of Old Kampala Hill, the mosque is the biggest in East Africa and was funded by Libya in cahoots with Idi Amin—the right hand man of Milton Obote and former president of Uganda. Amin served under Obote and orchestrated many mass murders before overthrowing Obote and taking over Uganda to rule as a dictator with an iron fist. Visiting the mosque was an amazing experience in and of itself, but it was particularly harrowing realizing that the money for this structure came to support Amin’s effort to gain control over tribes in Northern Uganda.
Despite the Mosque’s sorted past it was a monstrous structure on the inside and it gave us beautiful more beautiful views over Kampala. Leaving the mosque we hit the streets for some morning craft shopping and a view of the hustle and bustle that accompanies this East African metropolis. We had time for a quick chipati made on a road-side stand right before our eyes before boarding the bus for the trip back. The ride home was long but gave us more gorgeous views of the countryside and allowed us to see the border in the light of day.
Crossing the border was the usual blend of excitement and stress as we got our entry stamp and made the walk into the “no man’s land” between Rwanda and Uganda. There was the usual mix of moneychangers and stow-away bananas on the bottom of trucks that you see at any border. And though we were leaving Uganda we felt photos of the signs in no man’s land welcoming us into the country were important to have since we missed them on the way into the country due to our late night bus ride.
As we had our passports stamped to enter Rwanda I reflected on my weekend trip to de’Nile and the usual feelings of the other denial crept into my head. “No, this won’t be the last time I cross the border to come back to Rwanda, my last weekend road trip, or the last excursion filled with the surprises only East Africa can offer”. “No, I don’t wish I experienced this amazing weekend with my friends from home, look forward to sharing pictures with my family as soon as the bus arrived, or long for a warm shower to wash off the Nile water”.
And it was in this moment I realized that de’Nile is best left as a river in Uganda. The truth was I will leave Kigali soon and I will leave a bit of myself here. The moments I have experienced have changed my perspective on life and how I want to live it because that’s what travel does to you. At the same time, I will continue to miss my friends and family and the comforts of home—and that is okay too. After all, as I reflected on the bus ride home, the best part about going away is coming home to appreciate all you have. And whether in Uganda, Rwanda, or home sweet America I am blessed a great deal of friends, family, and opportunities. That is one fact there is no denying.