Journey to Uganda

Weighing life's dangers

Arriving in the dusty, ramshackle city of Kampala, my journey begins into the heart of Uganda's troubling environmental and public health trade-offs. This typical African metropolis is built across the hills of the once tropical jungle shores of Lake Victoria.

I'm looking out over my apartment balcony right now -- peering actually because every outdoor hanging surface becomes a laundry line -- towards downtown Kampala. The leafy suburb of Nakawa, where I am staying, is in the foreground. It consists of a collection of one story homes along red dirt paths that are constructed with scrap wood and corrugated metal roofs. The better ones have cement walls, and everywhere people are going about their morning business hanging clothes, filling buckets of water, walking to town. The smells of this place are pungent, a mixture of burning trash, traffic exhaust, and a humid, vegetative freshness.

I have come to Uganda to do a story about DDT, but it's already morphing into something much larger. About six months ago, the government here embarked on a plan to spray homes throughout the entire country with this chemical, banned for nearly 40 years in the West after Rachel Carson wrote her groundbreaking Silent Spring. Even as DDT is internationally recognized and controlled as a persistent organic pollutant, it lurks in the homes of many of the poorest people in the developing world to control malaria. My goal is to talk to some of these people and explore the difficult trade-offs between controlling this deadly disease and protecting the environment and human health.

This blog will catalog my travels into one of the most malaria-ridden areas of the world -- anti-malaria tablets, a bed net, and deet in hand (I've decided to skip the citronella). Kampala is my starting point – Uganda's capital city and, as I have found, a typical African metropolis.

Built on seven hills off what was once the tropical jungle shores of Lake Victoria, Kampala is a dusty, clamoring, ramshackle city, the downtown a collection of high-rises and fancy government buildings interspersed with shacks made of scrap wood or metal cargo containers packed with stuff to buy. The wealthy take to their walled compounds in the hills where it's greener, quieter, and roomier, leaving the low-lying areas to house the rest of Kampala.

Within two days, I have traipsed around much of town, taking in the busy marketplaces where everything from chickens to used clothing to auto parts are displayed for quick sale. I feel remarkably safe. Though crime does occur, people have so far been gracious and helpful to me. Kampala lacks the seedier elements of next door Nairobi, even though a lengthy civil war and Uganda's border with some of the most dangerous spots on Earth would seem to place it more directly in harm's way.

One easy way to put yourself on life's edge? Ride a boda boda. This is a motorcycle where you sit behind the driver and cling for dear life. It sure gets you places fast, if it gets you there at all. I swore off riding them, but just yesterday found myself gripping the shoulder of a boda driver in terror as we flew along the city streets, my bags of tropical fruits getting a good bruising between us.

Somehow I had gotten lost and dusk was approaching. Funny how even the most mundane of daily situations here present themselves as risky trade-offs.

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