Feb 24

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Welcome back to reading our blog. We have been absent for quite some time, but have not forgotten you all!

We may be repeating each other a bit, so I’ll apologize for that at the start.

As you may have heard, we visited the gorillas over the weekend. To get a gorilla permit you have to go to the Uganda Wildlife Authority first and see if there is a date available. Only 6-8 permits are allowed per day per gorilla family (there were 3 families in the area we visited). Luckily for us, this is the low season for traveling so we were able to book a date quite easily. Feb 20th was the chosen date for the adventure. We left the day before at 5 am from our house to get to the bus ‘station’ by 5:30 to assure ourselves seats. The bus was supposedly leaving at 6, but in keeping with Uganda time, it left at 8:30. Not 10 minutes after we had left the lot we had our first delay! I’m not entirely sure what happened, but I think we cut off a matatu (taxi) and of course there was a bit of an argument over whose fault it was. Many people from the bus as well as the matatu got out to argue for a bit and it was eventually decided that it wasn’t the bus’ fault, so we continued on our way.

We sat in the front row (Jon tends to get motion sickness) and thought we had 3 seats between the two of us, but it turns out they sell every single seat on the bus, so we had a lady sitting with us. Luckily she spoke English and was very friendly. She made sure we weren’t cheated on the price of our tickets and found me a restroom twice on the way. I must say, the worst part about the ride was the lack of facilities! The bus did stop for a short call (you can guess what this is) along the side of the road, but I couldn’t quite make myself participate. Not that the actual toilets were much better, I just had a small bit of privacy that way. The roads themselves were at time ok, but at least half of the way, they were terrible. The bus drove very fast and didn’t seem to care if there were potholes, other vehicles in oncoming traffic, or people along the side of the road. It seems if you honk enough times that gives you free reign of the road. 🙂

We managed to make it all the way to Butogota in only 10 hours (seems long, but a couple girls who are staying at our house made the trip in 14!) and there was a driver to pick us up and take us to the campsite. Once we got to the campsite we decided the bus ride had been worth it. It was gorgeous! Right in the mountains, with gorgeous foliage all around, and it was peaceful with no diesel trucks going by or people singing until 4am! We chose to stay 3 nights so we’d have a day to relax before being tortured again on the bus ride back. After getting something to eat and going to bed (in a cute little cabin they called a banda) we woke early to start the gorilla trekking!

The morning began with freshly baked bread, fresh fruit, and scrambled eggs and then with full stomachs we made our way to our group. We were briefed on what to expect (basically told if a gorilla charges, hunker down and back away) and got in a jeep to drive closer to the gorillas. Our family was the biggest with 23 members total which included 2 silver backs (very unusual) and at least 5 babies. We drove for 45 minutes (very beautiful drive) at which point we entered the forest. Now before this, I had thought we’d be hiking and that it might be a good work out, but I assumed there would be paths to walk on. Not the case. Instead of paths, we had a man in front with a machete who chopped down a few branches here and there to make it passable and then of course we had our feet for trampling. I’m not sure how far we walked, but I think it wasn’t nearly as far as it seemed. Imagine walking through those hedges that many people have around their houses and then imagine trees above you with branches hanging down all around you and lots and lots of foliage underfoot with lots and lots of vines to get your feet caught in. Now imagine walking through all of this for 1.5 hours. That’s a little bit like what we did to find the gorillas. Once we found them we forgot how hard we had to work and were just so excited to see them! We had been told we would need to stay at least 7 meters from them, but that must have just been a suggestion, because we were definitely closer than 7 meters! At one point, Jon could have reached out to touch the silver back! It was pretty amazing. They all just sat around looking at us, some of them ignoring us, the young ones playing in the trees, and all of them eating lots and lots of leaves. We were so close we could hear them chewing (or even tooting as the case may be!). They are really incredible animals. The families that tourists visit are all habituated, as they say, and are used to be stared at so they aren’t afraid or aggressive towards people unless they are scared or threatened. There are lots of families in the area, however, who are not used to seeing people and at times can be aggressive. Thankfully we didn’t run into any of these groups.

We spent 1 hour with the gorillas (trying to take pictures and maintain our balance on the steep hill) before we had to journey back to the camp site. The way back was like night and day difference in difficulty! I’m sure we went much much further on the way back to the road and yet it probably took us less time. Once we were out of the forest (which I forgot to mention is entitled Bwindi Impenetrable National forest), there was a group of school aged children selling pictures of the silverbacks, carvings of them, and some other artwork they had done on scratch paper or whatever else they could find to draw on. Many of the pictures were actually quite good and it was so cute to see them. At first we just walked by and smiled, but then I decided I just had to buy one of their drawings. It’s like passing a lemonade stand on the sidewalk and not stopping for some. So I bought a picture of a couple silver backs and took a picture of the kids. Highlight of my day minus the actual gorillas of course.

Once we got back to the campsite we immediately showered (in a real shower!). I had fallen at least 4 times (more like slid down the hill), so was rather muddy and of course very sweaty! The shower felt wonderful! We then proceeded to fall fast asleep in our extremely cool dorm room (the building was made of cement so the room was always nice and cool). We slept until someone knocked on the door and asked what we wanted for dinner. What a day!

Saturday was spent sleeping until neither of us could sleep anymore. It was wonderful to sleep in a quiet place. We then had a wonderful breakfast and next signed up for the community walk. The money made from tourists visiting the gorillas as well as spending money in the various camp sites and buying gifts in the town has really helped the town prosper. Schools have been built and people have jobs. Some of the money is also used to help families pay school fees for the children if they are unable to. We learned all of this through the guide during the community walk and I just really hope it’s the truth. I’m sure the camp sites provide lots of jobs and tourists always buy gifts, but I wonder if the children see any of the profits. Anyway, back to the walk. We stopped at one shop where women weave baskets largely from banana leaves. The woman there that day showed us how she wove the baskets and informed us that the proceeds benefit the individuals who actually made them, mostly women who are unable to obtain other work for various reasons. Our next stop was to the traditional healer. I thought traditional medicine and witchcraft were largely the same thing, but came to find out this isn’t the case at all! There is lots of witchcraft here, but this man was not one of them. He learned traditional healing from his father and grandfather and serves his community even if his patients are unable to afford treatment. Additionally he has a coat from the hospital and once a month he meets with other traditional healers in the area as well as some staff from the hospital and they discuss how to better help their patients. If he is unable to assist a patient, he sends them to the hospital where they are treated with western medicine. He seemed so knowledgeable and the experience was so intriguing. He showed us different herbs and what their uses were and let us smell them too. Some of them smelled so lovely I’d actually put them in tea! Since so many of our western medicines come from plants, I have no doubt that many of his remedies really do help and since he consults other healers as well as western trained physicians, it seems like a reasonable approach to some common ailments.

Once we finished with our questions of the traditional healer, we moved on to the banana brewing plantation. The plantation grew 4 different types of bananas (ones for eating, cooking, brewing, or roasting) and made their own banana juice as well as wine. If you remember the episode of I Love Lucy, where Lucy stomps on the grapes to make wine, you’ll have an idea how they make the banana wine. It was interesting, but strange too. Once the juice is made, they ferment it to make the wine and then take the wine to a local man who makes it into liquor known here as waragi…something we’d call gin! We saw the man who distills the wine—using the cool river water to cool the coils and make the steam back into liquid form. We tasted all 3 of the banana products (well, I didn’t taste the waragi since I’d tasted it in Kampala) and I’m not really sure I could drink an entire glass of either the juice or the wine, but the gin is tasty mixed with soda. 🙂

Our last stop was to see the batwa people – or as we would call them, the pygmies. When sitting in front of them, they didn’t appear to be so small, but when standing next to them, I soon realized they were quite tiny indeed! They did a short singing and dancing performance for us and then had all of the crafts set out for us to buy. Although they likely benefit in some small way from the money we spent on the community walk, it’s probably very little. Jon and I were the only tourists on this particular walk and so we spent entirely too much on a gorilla carving that we didn’t particularly want! However, we left knowing the money would go directly to the people in front of us. I can’t quite explain the feeling I had while watching them sing and dance for us, but it was very emotional. I took videos with my camera and knew that if I stopped and just watched I would probably cry. These people are sort of the forgotten people of Uganda. They used to live in the forest, but as it is now a national park, they were sent away and given land near the park. Before 1991, they lived completely off the forest and though they lived difficult lives, the forest was their home. They now have been taught ways to subside off the land they live on and their children receive education at the local school and they also have free healthcare. When they were first transported out of the forest, the mortality rate was 50% for those less than 5 years old. The hospital that is now in the area was actually started for these people by a missionary doctor from California. We had an opportunity to tour the clinic and the facilities are very nice and clean and the hospital is even expanding. Unfortunately it wouldn’t be able to survive if not for outside donations largely from the UK and US. In fact 80% of their income comes from outside funding and only 0.1% comes from the Ugandan government. That being said, the facility is much much nicer than the government hospital, Mulago, that we are working at in Kampala!

Well, this is sure getting lengthy! I think I’ve pretty much summed up our trip to Bwindi. Oh, except for the fantastic ride back to Kampala! We actually met a couple from Canada who were with a tour guide and had extra room in their van. They were leaving to go back to Etebbe (very near Kampala) on Sunday which is the same day we were planning to leave, and they asked their driver if it’d be ok for us to ride back with them. He said he’d charge us $10 (the same price we paid for the bus ride!!) so we definitely agreed! We were so happy not to ride that crazy bus. The van was much more comfortable and the company was pleasant as well. We stopped for proper bathroom breaks and apart from something mildly wrong with the radiator (which was fortunately fixed at a mechanic shop on the way), the trip back was without any problems!

We weren’t all that excited to get back to Kampala and it’s crazy atmosphere, but back in Kampala we found ourselves anyway. We went to St. Stephen’s yesterday with the American doctor and then started at a new rotation today at Mulago.

Yesterday was actually quite a frustrating day. Though the idea of preventative medicine is not nearly where it should be in the US, it far exceeds where it is here. Here, they basically manage patients when they are in crisis, rather than preventing the crisis in the first place. I and two students from Yale examined a young infant and found a heart murmur. Though heart murmurs are often benign in children, it is best to actually know whether it is a problem or not rather than assuming it’s not. The child did not come in with any complaint of cardiac problems, the murmur was an incidental finding, but we still suggested to the doctor that we get an ECHO to rule out anything that could be problematic in the future. He basically laughed at us. A similar scenario happened awhile later with an older child and he again thought we were silly. The medicine he practiced had very little to do with any specific reasoning and it was very frustrating to watch. The medications they choose to give to people often has no rationale behind it and therefore makes little or no sense to us. Although similar things have been happening since I started at Mulago, yesterday was just sort of a breaking point for me. I know these doctors went to medical school and learned better medicine than they are practicing. It is this sense of pervasive futility that seems to have overtaken the culture that is so frustrating. This is at least my perception from the medical standpoint. I think patients want more but don’t know how to ask. The physicians don’t spend time teaching and then get angry when the patients don’t understand. Of course it was like this even in the US until not so many years ago, so I think there is hope. What gives me even more hope, is the doctor I worked with today. I went to the sickle cell clinic and had a wonderful experience! This man spent time really talking WITH his patients rather than at them and even spent considerable time teaching. Usually I get done around 1pm with clinics, but today I didn’t finish until 2:30 which is just a testiment to how much time he took with each individual. He wanted to do what was best for each patient and although it was a sickle cell clinic, he took time to make sure the children were healthy in all regards, not just pertaining to their disease. It was wonderful to see.

Yes well, now I think I have fully made use of this blog for the day and hopefully made up for the lack of correspondance over the last week!

Until later,



5 Responses to “Feb 24”

  1. Mom Says:

    Katie, so much emotion and seeing so many things, some good, some not so good but all life and what it is for different people in different places. Remember “there by the grace of God go I”, you are really seeing that now. I have so missed your blog!! Love hearing your voice but hard to really talk and this gives us a much better “picture” of your experiences. We are very proud of the work you and Jon are doing and the fortitude to do it. Lots of love!

  2. Diane (Mom) Says:

    Hi Katie,
    Yes, you said quite a bit more than Jon did. I’m glad that you got an extra day to rest after seeing the gorillas. It must be noisy in Kampala. When you get home everything will seem so much easer. Your stories are giving me a much clearer picture of life there. God bless you. I’m looking forward to seeing you at graduation.
    Jon’s mom

  3. Arlene Hiatt Says:


    It’s so good to read your blog again! What an awesome experience, the bus ride … I mean the gorillas! 🙂 Bus drivers and matatu drivers are definately unique. We noticed in Nairobi that pedestrians do not have the right of way; and I believe there is more horn honking in Kenya than in New York City! hehehe The gorillas sound amazing…will look forward to seeing pictures. I pray that God will continue to be your strength…spirit, soul, and body…through all your experiences, especially at the hospital. Arlene

  4. Robb Says:

    That sounds like a fantastic experience! I will have to read up on why the government displaced the tribes from the forest and how exactly they “taught” them how to live in a different landscape. Has different nutrition affected the growth of the tribe? I know it had a huge impact on my Filipino sister and her adopted friends depending upon what age they were adopted and brought to the states.

    Do they bargain in Africa for items or is the price pretty much set? Is getting out of your vehicle to argue with another driver pretty typical for the area? Any insight as to how they settle their disagreements?

    Take care Katie and Jon,


  5. Mikaela Says:

    If I tried to respond to everything you wrote my comment would be as long as your blog! I can’t wait until you are home – talking is way more efficient. I am incredibly jealous (except for the bucket showers and feces burger) and so excited for you and all your experiences! I look forward to seeing your pictures! I found the bit about the pigmies hospital and its funding particularly interesting. It sounds to me like this is the least they deserve. It’s nice to know that donations really make a difference.
    Lots of love, Mikaela

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