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Dodging acronyms and Ebola in Uganda

By Mark Nicholson

I am just back from Uganda, a country I love but which is not the holiday destination of the month: there is an Ebola outbreak there. It was my American colleagues’ first trip to Africa, so they were somewhat chary about accompanying me. On their arrival in Kenya, we booked return air tickets to Entebbe online and received a booking reference. At 5a.m. the next morning, we took an Uber to Nairobi airport, arrived in good time but found the terminal was overflowing with over a thousand angry passengers trying to get on to three very late intercontinental flights. The luggage-belt system had broken down and chaos had ensued. I am used to African airports and very good at politely bulldozing through frustrated masses. So at 6.45 a.m. we made it to the check-in desk and showed our confirmation code. The woman at the desk apologized but said there was no record of the booking and that the flight was overbooked. “You must go to the booking office and see if they can help” (in another terminal, of course). They couldn’t, apart from providing a new booking later that day. Back to my club for a huge English breakfast and a calm day by the pool.

That evening we tried again. All was well. We were booked and appeared at the check-in desk in an almost deserted terminal. “Your passports, please”. Holding mine up and then looking at me, the check-in man said, “Is this really you?”Of course it is,” I responded irritably, “I may have aged ten years but it is still me”. He turned the passport around and there was the photograph of my youngest daughter. Aaagh! The flight was due to leave in 90 minutes and my home is 60 minutes from the airport. I phoned both my wife and an assistant who lives ten minutes away but fancies himself as a rally driver. An hour later, he was nearing the airport with my passport, when the final boarding call was announced. He was just too late; but the wonderful thing about Africa is that things can always be arranged. For a small consideration, the immigration officer stamped a piece of paper with my details and off I went, armed only with a boarding card. On arrival in Entebbe on the western shores of Lake Victoria, a similar procedure ensued with Uganda immigration. My colleague, however, was less fortunate: she had applied a week before for a Uganda visa but it had yet to be issued online. After nearly an hour of negotiation and another small consideration, we were through, and on our way to the grandly named Imperial Resort Beach Hotel. We were the only guests in a 400-room hotel and I repaired to the bar for a ‘Nile’.

At 5 a.m. the following morning, we were off again to Kujjansi, a small missionary airport not far from Entebbe to catch a Caravan (a large single-engine workhorse, common in this part of the world). The previous week, an email exchange with the flight operator had confirmed our bookings to Gulu in the north. Unfortunately, there were no return flights on the day we wanted to come back but we were at least glad that we could fly one-way. We arrived on time for our flight only to be informed that there were no flights to or from Gulu that week. Showing them the confirmatory emails cut no ice at all. The lady who had confirmed our flights “unfortunately” was not coming in that day. My colleagues were beginning to get rather hot under the collar by this time so it was time to explain T.I.A. (This is Africa), always a useful acronym in such circumstances.

(Right) Fire assembly sign at Kujjansi airport

We hired a car for the tedious seven-hour drive north to Acholi country heading towards the South Sudan border. Our driver, whom I had to tell to slow down from his normal 140 k.p.h overtaking motorcyclists with inches to spare, had been in the Ugandan Army. He had served in Iraq alongside the U.S. Army, a terrifying and life-changing experience that made him realize how happy he was to have been born in Uganda.

The road north crosses the Nile below the Karuma Falls. For security reasons, one is not permitted to slow down or stop on the bridge but the power of the river below us was truly awe-inspiring. The photograph (below) fails to portray the deafening roar, the speed of the current and the massive volume of water.

Acholi District was the centre of the uprising against Ugandan President Museveni between 1987 and 2012 that became known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (L.R.A.), led by the infamous Joseph Kony, a Christian fundamentalist warlord, accused of rape, mass murder and child slavery. Mr. Kony remains at large and is one of the most wanted criminals on earth with a US$ 5million bounty on his head. He has since disappeared into the depths of either the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C). or the Central African Republic (C.A.R.). Unfortunately, as soon as the LRA made peace, the M23 rose up in eastern Congo. MR23? A militia of Rwandans, led by people from the Tutsi ethnic group, named after the date – 23 March 2009 - when the DRC government negotiated a peace agreement with them. They are fighting the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (F.D.L.R) led by people from the Hutu ethnic group. Uganda is trying hard to protect its borders in case more refugees pour in from the fighting in the DRC. Ten years ago the district capital, Gulu, had one of the largest refugee populations in the world. The town today is peaceful but we came across two unexploded rocket-propelled grenades (R.P.G.s) in the bush, a reminder of the violent struggles between the Ugandan army and the rebels.

One of the many annoying things about senescence is talking about ‘the old days’ when no one else has a clue what one is on about. When we were discussing the LRA, I said that Idi Amin killed more people than the LRA. “Who?”, I was asked. ‘The Last King of Scotland’ was ousted in 1979, thirteen years before one of my American colleagues was born; so I suppose it is like me quizzing someone much older about the start of the second Sino-Japanese war in 1937. Amin’s dictatorship cost 300,000-500,000 Ugandan lives while the LRA rebellion accounted for a mere 100,000. These figures are hard to believe but these things happened. I had a similar experience in Rwanda after the genocide there when the Tutsi taxi driver who drove me from Kigali to Butare in the south of Rwanda told me that 64 of his relatives had been slaughtered in two weeks. Yet most East Africans I meet are the gentlest, friendliest people on the face of the Earth. Sadly, human capacity for violence lies only slightly below the surface.

Our trips became more and more hazardous with the rain. On one site visit, we had to abandon our 4WD and transfer onto four motorbikes for an 11 km drive through the bush to use our drone. On the way back we were caught in a massive thunderstorm and had to run for shelter in someone’s beautifully-decorated house which we had passed earlier (see title photo).

We succeeded in avoiding the main Ebola areas. Ebola virus disease (E.V.D) is another Ribonucelic acid (R.N.A) virus like Covid but from a different group known as the Filoviridae, which includes the equally unpleasant Marburg virus. Like Covid, it almost certainly originates from bats (N.B. conspiracy theorists). Those fearing Covid should note that the World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) has put the case mortality of Covid-19 (updated 22 November) at 1%. This figure itself is surely vastly inflated because many, especially the young, are infected asymptomatically and these people are obviously not included in the statistics. The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, which killed some 75 million people in Europe during the main outbreak in the 14th Century, had a case mortality of 30-50%, a figure much less than previously thought. Those who died probably had co-morbidities, because a large number of people already suffered from chronic and untreated conditions.

EVD, first discovered in humans on the Ebola river in the D.R.C. in 1976, was until a few years ago, 99% fatal. Better symptomatic treatment has reduced the case mortality to around 50-90%. So imagine if Ebola had spread like Covid. The W.H.O. gives us a figure of 636,440,663 confirmed Covid cases. Had the pandemic been Ebola, we would be looking at 300 to 575 million deaths instead of six million. Haemorrhagic fevers (EVD, Marburg, CCHF etc) all have similar symptoms - fatigue, headache, sore throat, followed by massive internal and external bleeding. There is a vaccine only for one of the six types of Ebola, but not the one going around Uganda. Infection is normally by direct contact, which makes burial dangerous and exhumation highly unwise. We stopped in a shop in Kampala to read the following:

Our final evening was spent having a peaceful dinner by Lake Victoria, the waves rolling in as if by the sea. 400 km away on the eastern shore is another project I am involved in where the waves also roll in. I have yet to work out why the waves should roll in opposite directions when the wind presumably is in one direction.

Our flight home was uneventful apart from the shocking price of the air tickets. Entebbe to Nairobi is 524 km for which we paid $570 for a return ticket on our national airline, US$ 0.50c/km. By comparison, I checked Ryanair from London to Ibiza, 2814 km there and back, costing $40 (US$ 0.0142 c/ km). Go figure, as they say.

On leaving Entebbe, clutching our Covid vaccination certificates, we then had to fill in an extra Ebola form: “Have you touched any bodies in the last 5 days?”Alive or dead?” I was tempted to ask, but forbore doing so.


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