Saturday, July 29, 2017

Bella Africa: Yes, She Can

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you that females can’t be safari guides, they certainly can’t be drivers of those big SUVs, the LandCruisers and the Range Rovers?”

“Ah, so many! Many, many people told me that,” says Bella Sylvia.

But she ignored them. All of them. And today she is the director and owner of Bella Africa, the first all-female safari driver-guide tour company in Uganda, maybe in all of Africa.

Much to her father’s dismay, Bella left home at 18 to pursue her dream of being a safari guide. She got off to a promising start as a dishwasher at a backpackers hostel run by an Australian fellow, then built on that success by getting promoted to potato slicer. Needless to say, the smart money, and her dad, were not betting on Bella’s success. Indeed, as her dad watched her depart for the big city of Kampala, he thought the very worst.

“He opposed city life,” Bella recalls. “He said, ‘You will become nasty, a prostitute.’”

“But that’s not what I was into,” she says.

When she told one date that her dream was to be a safari guide, he said, “If I have a wife with such ambitions, she will forget them fast. My wife will stay home where she belongs!”

“That’s exactly why I’ll never be your wife,” Bella quipped.

The life of women, and of everyone in Uganda, has improved markedly in the last 30 years or so, since the fall of Idi Amin. There are still many improvements needed, but things are much better than they were in the bad old days.

The lot of women is still a tough one, though they are the backbone, the heart, and the soul of the nation, as most men would agree. They are also genetically entrepreneurial as no one can deny. When people ask me to describe the Ugandan women I’ve known over the years (I’ve lived here since 2009), I tell them they have two abiding qualities: They are authentically sweet and genuinely tough. They are also gorgeous to a one; on the market days in the village where I lived the first 3 years I was here it was like being surrounded by Vogue models, as I walked the market, it was if I was swimming through a school of exquisitely dressed and coiffed tropical fish, albeit human ones.

Uganda itself is a land of staggering and singular beauty with landscapes and wild animals that are both majestic and dramatic. Its people, according to no less an expert source than the BBC, and seconded by me, are the friendliest on earth. They are also very funny. They also love to talk. They are also brave, kind and loyal. Otherwise, they have nothing to recommend them.

Because of Bella’s energy, her intellect, her high spirits and her determination, when meeting her one is reminded of her precursors, everyone from Mary Kingsley to Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas. Women of courage who didn’t listen to those who didn’t believe in them. Wild and beautiful themselves, they, like Bella, went deep into wild and beautiful places. They were drawn to them, pulled by the magnetism of adventure, seduced by the landscape, the animals, the possibilities.

As tourism goes, Uganda is still something of a secret. Amin, Gorillas, Ebola is what most Americans and Europeans know about the land-locked, Oregon-size country that is surrounded by the Democratic Republic of Congo (which is in fact where the Ebola River is located), Rwanda, Kenya, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. There is one quote from decades ago by one famous person — Winston Churchill — that gets trotted out repeatedly (apparently no other westerner ever said anything complimentary about the country): “The kingdom of Uganda is a fairy-tale. You climb up … and at the end there is a wonderful new world. The scenery is different, the vegetation is different, the climate is different, and, most of all, the people are different from anything elsewhere to be seen in the whole range of Africa ... I say: ‘Concentrate on Uganda’. For magnificence, for variety of form and colour, for profusion of brilliant life - bird, insect, reptile, beast - for vast scale -- Uganda is truly the pearl of Africa.”

Churchill was exactly right, of course. Over the years the British, and later the Ugandan government, had the good sense to establish national parks throughout this country, tens-of-thousands of acres of exquisite terrain and gorgeous animals, all set aside for looking at, camping in, photographing. And a knowledgeable local guide only enriches the experience.

The landscape varies significantly in altitude, flora and fauna. There are snow-capped peaks and glaciers (The Rwenzoris in the west are the second highest mountains in Africa; only Kilimanjaro is higher), desert, dry savannah with acacia trees and euphorbia candelabra, giant succulents and tree ferns just below the snowline, and knee-deep mosses. There are fish eagles everywhere you look (they closely resemble the American Eagle) giant otherworldly-looking marabou storks sulking on buildings throughout the cities, and jillions of other exotic birds (this small nation has more native bird species than all of North America, in excess of 1000). And there is no shortage of humans and other primates.

There are about 36 million people, 80 percent of which are 15 or younger; it’s a country of children, and children raising children. There are 52 tribes, or clans as they are usually called, with more than 50 languages. I speak a smattering of Luganda and Lhukonzo, the languages spoken by the Buganda and Bukonzo, and a few words of Swahili. The official language is English, though Swahili is also widely spoken and one also often comes across French, Dutch and German speakers, as well as Indians and Chinese speakers. Culture and tradition is a polychrome tapestry ranging from ancient rituals to hip hop and rap.

Bella and her sisters expertly navigate it all while finding leopards and lions, elephants, hippos and anything else that flies, walks, slithers or swims. They answer their clients many questions and concerns, and all but tuck them in for the night at the end of another lovely tropical day. A visit to the office of Bella Africa finds two of the women practicing their German by reading aloud to one another, and others formulating itineraries, checking with guides in the field, confirming reservations, overseeing car washing and doing the many other tasks large and small that are required to keep things running smoothly in the field and in the office. Meanwhile, Bella is stuck at the bank trying to arrange a short term loan because a couple clients failed to meet a payment deadline. It's a regimen that would do-in a lesser soul, but she juggles all the challenges with good humored resolve.

Bella’s first trip as a driver-guide was a 17 day drive through Murchison Falls National Park and the Congo’s Virunga National Park, one of the three places in the world to see Mountain Gorillas up close. The business was “getting real crazy,” she recalls. “I was doing everything, including raising a four year old boy (now 7).” She knew she needed “more girls who can drive and guide.” First, she turned to her sister-in-law. “Can you please come help; we will work together. I can’t pay you.” Who could down such an offer?

Bella’s sister-in-law, Juliet, unlike so many, believed in her and joined the company; she is still a key staff member. Girl safari guides were not well received at first, and they still get a lot of raised eyebrows, but Bella and her sister-in-law kept pushing, kept booking tours, kept doing what everyone said couldn't be done. “It was was really hard when I started, so hard, but giving up was not in my vocabulary. Still, in many parks, I’m the only female guide.”

Back when Bella was still slicing potatoes for a paycheck, she asked her boss, the Aussie bloke, to make her a safari guide. He laughed, said, “What can you do?”

“Anything,” Bella said.

“Go home and grow up,” he replied.

So she did. She went home the next weekend, then came back on Monday. “OK,” she told him. “I grew up.”

“OK, fine,” he laughed. And he started training her as a safari guide.

I guess one could use words like spunk and precocious to describe Bella, but that would be condescending and inaccurate. Sure, Bella had plenty of those two qualities, but what made the difference was her vision, stubbornness, hard work, and fearlessness. Not to mention a business sense that would be the envy of any Harvard MBA. Luck? Sure, she had that too. You can’t get along without it in business, definitely not if the business is in Africa.

“I worked for the Australian as a guide until 2009,” Bella tells me. “I learned all about guiding. Learning birds was the most difficult, because there are so many. Then I also learned about mammals, butterflies, moths, vegetation.”

Bella says she feels a responsibility to find animals when she takes out clients. On one recent trip she spent 14 days with a British photographer looking for a leopard. They saw 9 lions, but no leopard.  All the park personnel knew she was looking for a leopard so her client could get his photos. Finally she got the call from a ranger near one of the park gates. “I’m looking at a leopard in the tree!” the ranger said. Bella drove like the wind and they got there while the leopard was still lounging on the branch. The photographer took more than 300 photos.

“What does your dad think of all this?”

“I’m now his favorite! He includes me in all family meetings; I’m a role model for my siblings,” he tells me. “What I see in girls now,” Bella tells me, “is that they are waiting for a rich man instead of doing it themselves. That’s not right.”

While Bella Africa excels at delivering the classic safari experience, it also seeks to give clients unique trips that expose them to the culture, the indigenous clans, and the extraordinary and varied lives of Ugandan tribes-people. One of the most unique, and unfortunately disenfranchised, tribal groups is the Batwa pygmies who live in the southwest near Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and in the west near Semliki National Park. Bella tells me about her first visit with the Batwa elders when they sang her “a deep, sad song” about the star-crossed history of the tribe that’s been pushed out of its ancestral homelands and forced to take up farming instead of the hunter-gatherer life they've lived for centuries.

“They know the government and media have not treated them right,” Bella says, “but they are amazing people.”

The far north of the country is an area Bella wants to see more foreigners visiting. Its fiercely independent Karamoja tribe is gifted with a fascinating culture and she feels that acknowledging it will help the tribe survive. “I love love love them, my favorites.” Might she find something in their extremely independent spirit that resonate with her own? Might. She wouldn’t be so unoriginal as to suggest it, but I have no shame.

“I’m shocked how much people don’t know about Uganda,” she tells me. “There is so much good here and all the media reports on is the bad.”

“Yes, I call it tragedy porn,” I say. “You know there’s a tired old saying in the media business, the news. Unfortunately, it’s true: ‘If it bleeds it leads.’ The news folks have found that by sensationalizing sorrow and tragedy they can sell more papers or ads on their web sites, TV and radio. I agree with you. There is so much good going on here and in most of Africa, but you’d never know it from western media.”

“That’s why we call the company Bella Africa, Beautiful Africa. That’s the place you see when we plan your trip,” says Bella.

“Speaking of sensationalism, tell me the scariest experience you’ve ever had as a guide.”

“It still scares me when I remember it,” she says. “We were in a boat near Murchison Falls. We’d gone over near the bank to see a particularly large female Nile crocodile. She was maybe 6-7 feet.” (Males can be as much as 14 feet and 1200 pounds, but 7 feet is indeed large for a female.) The bank was steep, the croc was uphill from us, it’s mouth open, gazing down at us. She could easily have run and jumped in the boat. The guy driving the boat got too close. The croc just stared at us; some of the clients were crying in fear. I told the boatman to get us out of there. Then the croc started moving closer, increased its speed, jumped in the water and swam right under our boat. It could have flipped the boat, but I guess it had already had lunch. That was my scariest experience. I love animals, but you must keep your distance.”

If you’ve seen a croc in action on one of the nature TV shows, you can imagine what a sobering experience it was. They are killing machines, fast, efficient. Their M.O. is to grab their prey and pull them under water, then spin with them in a deadly and disorienting move that cannot be resisted. They pull people from boats with regularity.

“And your dream trip,” I ask, “what would that be — if time and money were not an issue, and who would you take along?”

“I want to visit every country,” Bella tells me. “Mostly, I want to get completely out of my comfort zone. I hate the cold, so a very cold place would really challenge me: Antarctica! I want to see penguins swimming. And I’d like to take a loved one with me. That way, when it gets cold, I’ll have arms to wrap myself in.”

Yes, Bella clearly sees travel, whether in her own country, which she loves fiercely, or elsewhere, as a sensual pursuit, like falling in love. Beautiful places and warm people attract her. “And I want to go to places where people look beyond my skin color,” she tells me. “Ugandans are very friendly, and I want to visit places where I’m seen for who I am.”

“And what of the future? Where do you see Bella Africa in 5 years?”

“We are bound by culture here, but when I started the company, I said, ‘Why can’t I do this? What’s being a girl have to do with it? And now the clients of other companies see us in the field and say, ‘Why can’t we have a woman guide?’ This work gives me a special feeling. The work itself, but also to be able to help other women move up in this non-traditional career.”

“Five years? We want to grow the company, bring more women into this field. We will expand with more trips outside Uganda — Rwanda, Tanzania, Congo; there’s no limit. We want to reach every Asian household. There are many foreigners living in and visiting this country, also Europeans, Americans, everyone. We want them to see all of this amazing country. I believe we will excel, and we will do so while maintaining a personal touch. I think that women have a different perspective, a different way of guiding, they see differently.”

“Is it better?” I ask.

“It’s different, more inclusive.” She looks up at the map of Africa on her wall, pauses, thinks. “You know,” she tells me, at the start male guides would see me in the field and say, ‘You are bound to fail. This is a man’s world.’ I’d say, ‘Oh, really?’”

Bella Africa Tours  online:

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Addendum No. Five: Loss, Joy & The Other

Erfert, the ever joyous, suggested I write on these topics and I always do as she tells me to. We all experience loss from our very beginnings, but one of the things that gives me joy now is to see the reaction of my infant son when his mother returns home after being away for several hours. It almost makes the anguish he seems to feel when she departs worth it. As she walks in, or when he see her coming across the courtyard from our balcony, he glows, giggles, then hugs her as she enters the apartment, screams. He is unrestrained in expressing his happiness at seeing this person he is so powerfully connected to, and always will be. Not long ago I lost everything, partly through my own doing, partly through no fault of my own. All gone. Everything. I came within 45 mins of death. I also lost about 95% of my US friends. I now possess nothing and everything simultaneously. At nearly 65, I have no savings whatsoever, no regular income, no health insurance, no property except my clothing and shoes (I wear sandals most days, even in the rain; it's Africa). The everythingness of joy I possess is derived from my wife and son. They are a fire that burns with love. After about 9 years of living in Africa, I have lost most correspondents. Commonalities fall away; Richard Dowden mentions this in his fine book, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles -- the difference of daily life in Africa and Europe or the US is so great that friends just can't relate and, over time, lose interest, associations fade. You lose each other. I rarely hear from friends or family any longer, and when I do it's a missive of 3-4 sentences. The era of the long form letter has been blown away by the digital breeze. I like social media. I text, use WhatsApp, Facebook, but they are not the same as real correspondence. My other loss since moving to Africa is my anonymity. Eyes follow me wherever I go, a movie star without portfolio. In the upcountry villages, everything I do is fascinating, foreign, often funny. I am now and will forever be The Other, the muzungu, the foreign one, always consulting maps, always asking for directions and how to say something, always joy.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Addendum No. Four: Traveling in Mexico

I've gravitated toward tropical climates, ancient cultures, and carpe diem societies ever since I first began traveling. I've been to Mexico many times for both pleasure and work. I've also traveled in Southeast Asia, Brazil, Africa, Hawaii, where I owned property near Puna on the Big Island for several years, and watched a grown man teaching young girls the hula on the beach at Honaunau as spinner dolphins danced offshore. I love the heat, the pounding monsoons, the lush foliage, the weird insects and reptiles, the extravagant birds and the even more extravagant humans. Tropical people are what attract me the most. They're so sexy, funny, rarely in a hurry, never irritable or angry. The fat sultry clouds are always welcome as they float in on the hot morning winds, weeping and sobbing over the jungles, the mountains, and the savannahs. The cliffs covered with thick moss want to be petted. But the human life is what keeps me coming back, a craving for the culture, the sound, the tastes and aromas. Mexico and Mexicans drew me back so many times. I looked at them, their caramel faces, and they looked at me, the vanilla Californian. We engaged in a poetry of lyrical glances and stumbling phrases, grasping enough to know that we wanted to continue our awkward interpersonal symphony. When I'm in Oaxaca, home of my coincidentally named pal of many years, Roger Mexico, who suggested this topic, I go to the Zócalo in the evenings and watch the couples dance. Some have been coming there to dance in the dark for decades; everything from their souls to their clothes is perfectly matched. I watch them a long, long time, then I find a willing partner in the crowd, ask her to join me for a dance or two or three. She is invariably beautiful, exquisitely dressed. I am invariably a tall, bald gringo who dances like a three-legged dog, and just as happily. The music begins and away we go, swimming through the other couples, sashaying, skipping, strolling, twirling, sailing, unfurling...

Monday, July 10, 2017

Addendum No. Three: Tech Big Shots I Have Known

My old friend Ann-Marie suggested I write about a few of the people I knew in tech. Though I knew none of them well, The people I found most appealing of all the honchos I met in high-tech were Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics, Netscape, Healtheon/WebMD and MyCFO (Jim and I were both high school dropouts, but he's a wee bit richer than I am), John Warnock and Chuck Geschke, founders of Adobe, and George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars films, founder of Industrial Light & Magic and founder of the the George Lucas Educational Foundation where I knew him. Clark and I talked almost exclusively about dogs. He had two Samoyeds that he'd bring by my cubicle at SGI every couple weeks and we'd talk as the dogs snoozed or begged for treats; I'd bought a box of treats just for them so they always arrived at the cubicle 5 minutes before Jim did. We'd also discuss his love of sailing, and his ideas for a high tech boat. He mused about writing his life story, which he later did -- with the help of a friend of mine. He had an ego, but he mostly kept it partitioned off and only brought it out when dealing with other egos, notably engineers and other tech execs. I also had some dealings with Adobe's John Warnock and Chuck Geschke. (Years after I met Geschke, he was kidnapped and held for 5 days.) They were both warm, avuncular types, quite unlike the other various CEOs in Silicon Valley, most of whom were asshats of the 33rd degree. Warnock was at gathering once a few years back and attracted much attention by first spilling his drink then finding a rag to wipe up the mess with. People were amazed that a billionaire would do such a thing instead of expecting himself to be waited on, but that was typical of Warnock. It was also indicative of the pretentiousness and entitlement people expected of the high-tech big shots, and apparently still do. For about 9 months in 2006 I worked at Skywalker Ranch and attended many small meetings with George Lucas where I had a chance to observe him close-up. Skywalker is a surreal, too perfect sort of place, a result of George's cinema-besotted imagination and an endless amount of money. There's a sweetness and kindliness to George even though he is often remote and awkward. I suspect Asperger's. In any case, he was always friendly when I met with him, asking if I wanted coffee, offering a chair and so on, yet it was obvious he didn't do these things naturally. He'd been schooled, maybe by his overbearing secretary, to interact with people in such a way when he was hosting them. Also, he needed to employ these traits if he wanted to work in the necessarily collaborative film industry. His fame could not have been easy for him and he sought out ordinary places of refuge, such as a coffee shop I frequented long before I worked at Skywalker. He'd come in, sit at the counter by himself and chat with the waitress. She'd tell him about an argument she had with her mother and he'd sympathize, ask endless questions about the dull minutiae the young women had an endless supply of. They were mind-bogglingly boring conversations but Lucas loved them, did everything he could to extend them. 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Addendum No. Two: My Heart
My friend Kaitlin, who is all heart, asked me to write about my heart. It's a tiny, shriveled thing so this will be a short entry. But here's the good news: My heart tripled in size and got much healthier as soon as I saw my son emerge from his mother nearly a year ago. He is now my cardiologist and everyday earns the name we gave him, Mukisa, which means blessing in the Luganda language. My heart broke, literally -- and only literally (I'm with Susan Sontag: illness as metaphor is baloney) -- on Easter Sunday 2013 when it nearly ground to a halt thanks to three arteries that were almost completely blocked (99%, 99% and 84% -- almost enough for you?). The pain was stunning, magnificent and left little question what was going on. Lucky for me, I was near one of the best cardiac catheterization hospitals in the USA and a friend and emergency medical people got me there very quickly. The surgeon told me I was about 45 minutes from the Great Beyond when the ambulance delivered me to the hospital. But the best part happened just after they loaded me in the ambulance at a rural fire station in Marin County, California. As I say, it was Easter, the celebration of Christ's resurrection, if you believe in such things. They put me on a gurney and rolled me into the back of the van. My mind was going like crazy, crazily thinking of all kinds of things in no particular order, kind of a waking dream. Oddly, I was not scared at all, too much other stuff was happening. The doors closed. So of course I thought of The Doors, and of course I thought of "When The Music's Over," and of course I thought of one of its most famous lines, "Cancel my subscription to the resurrection." That was early Sunday morning. Tuesday about noon, I walked out of the hospital -- pain free, energized, thankful -- and went home with four stents in my heart. They are still there, making sure things keep pumping until Mukisa is at least 25. I believe.

Addendum No. One: Things I Like to Cook
As I mentioned earlier, I find cooking therapeutic and have for decades. After writing this, I'll go home and cook a chicken stew for my wife, my sister-in-law, a couple friends and my son, Mukisa. He's now got seven teeth and is very enthusiastic about eating anything and everything and lots of it; my kind of dining companion. Nattabi bought the whole chicken at the market the other day. It's an African chicken, so it tastes like real chicken, not some Foster Farms plasticine robot chicken. I like to chop and drink something alcoholic while doing so -- restricts your intake and sharpens your knife skills if you're interested in retaining your fingertips. I'll dice onions, lots of garlic, bell pepper and potatoes. I'll saute all that in olive oil and butter, and throw in a little salt and a bunch of black pepper, also some sugar to help the onions brown. I'll then cut up the chicken. It's a big sucker so it may take awhile. Once it's in pieces I'll brown it. I'll then mix everything together, add some water and some wine and let it cook verrrrrrrryyyyy slowly, with oregano and rosemary, maybe a bit of curry powder. It will be a one dish meal, my favorite due to my terminal laziness. I will announce it to my guests as Memphis Booth chicken, aka Coq au Kampala, in honor of the man who asked me to write on this topic.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Long View: Being, in no particular order, 25 things I've bumped into along the way and have not forgotten. Yet.

25. Dreams
I mean the kind of dreams we have when we sleep -- not waking dreams or daydreams, not dreams one has about loved ones,  not wet dreams,  not dreams one projects about accomplishment or lovers, not vague dreams about this and that. NO, REM dreams is what I'm referring to, the intense ones, the take no prisoners dreams. I have a half dozen or so most nights. Let me tell you. They're always weird, with strange conversations, transformations, hallucinations and interactions -- rarely nightmares,  but often anxiety producing. Then, just occasionally, I'll have a dream of unspeakable  grandeur and beauty, shimmering, surreal, visually staggering. Such a dream will come to me without warning. Here's one I had years ago and still vividly recall: I'm walking in a field of waist high grass, a light breeze is blowing,  music of the glass harmonica plays gently in the distance, all very ethereal, spacey. 8 or 10 large  black and white butterflies come gliding towards me just above the grass. Suspended from the body of each butterfly is a crystal sphere about the size of a grape, swinging gently as they fly. What did it mean? I know not, except to tell me, "Welcome to your mind, this has been a brief demonstration of what it can do when you let it fly..."