Going to a Denver Broncos game is an annual event for me, maybe two at best. I go because it’s an event—I plan my whole Sunday around it. I get my workout in early. I eat a big breakfast and probably put something in the crockpot for when I get home. I put effort into arranging a complex relay of transportation, from meeting up with people to figuring out an Uber to dealing with the RTD bus, to walking the 10 miles it takes to get inside the stadium and to my seat. I pack a special, stupid clear plastic bag and somehow always manage to make it inside the stadium with plenty of contraband anyway. I fight the crowds walking, getting food, going to the bathroom, and in my seat. I use binoculars to see what’s happening on the opposite side of the field and only half understand what’s going on because there is no play-by-play announced in the stadium. I almost always only go in September while the weather is still pleasant, though I sometimes make exceptions to go on my birthday in November when I end up packing blankets, handwarmers, and battery-powered clothes. It’s a lot of damn work to go a Broncos game.

An annual event in this area of Uganda is something the locals refer to as “the agriculture show.” That’s a fairly accurate description, and I would add more color by likening it to what we know as a state fair. Most every school kid goes on a field trip during the week-long festivities and many adults and families go, too. Kaitlin and Erin—the other interns—and I decided to make the Friday morning trip into Jinja to take part in this bit of local culture.

Traveling anywhere here is a major event. The Guest House and main CDO campus is about a mile away from the center of town, so the option is to walk or call the boda chauffeur. Walking a mile would be fine if not for that it’s a mile of being accosted by children screaming at you and touching you, dodging jutted roads and cows, being on guard for bodas, bicycles, and vehicles who drive on whatever side of the road they want, and dealing with the assortment of unwelcome things people say to you. My preference is almost always to use the boda. On this day, we walked.

After stopping at the café to use the bathroom, we walked the few blocks up the main road where the Jinja-bound taxis congregate. They line up on the side of the road amongst a of crowd of people who have the choice of several waiting vehicles, basing their decision on how full the mini-buses are and what price they can negotiate for their seat. There are 18 available seats and when the taxi is full of passengers, it departs. We were told right away that the price for Jinja was 4,000 shillings. We knew from previous travels that it should be 3,000, or even 2,500 if you can get a good deal.

This is the part that becomes the headache. Do you want to spend time and energy fighting over the equivalent of $0.35 or just get in the taxi and go? On one hand, I don’t like the idea of knowing I’m getting taking advantage of. On the other, for a difference of $0.35 I almost feel like the taxis are the stupid ones because they could easily be asking for ten times that much. The other interns decided to haggle. Ten minutes later, we were no further in negotiating down the 4,000 shilling price. Amongst a lot of confusion and exhaustion, we got into the back row of the nearest taxi. It was almost empty aside from us and we waited another 10 minutes for it to fill up and leave.

The drive to Jinja takes about 45 minutes as long as there are no major traffic issues. We made a few stops along the way to let passengers off and on, at one point picking up someone who was traveling with a live chicken. The chicken got stuffed under our seats in the back row, directly below Kaitlin. She kept her toes pointed forward the rest of the trip.

Uganda, East Africa, taxi, mini-bus

We were almost all the way to Jinja when traffic stopped. It looked to me like the issue was a crane not too far up ahead that was doing some work and holding up traffic. The driver must’ve thought the slow-down was more significant, because the next think I knew, we were hopping the median of the highway and turning around. We went only a little distance before the driver abruptly pulled off the paved road and turned onto a dirt road that went uphill into a mostly residential and farming area. It didn’t seem like part of the normal taxi route. We drove for about 10 minutes, circling down and back around the hill, before some people were let off on the side of the road. I was confused about whether this detour was always part of the plan. Not too much further, we were back on the highway and approaching one of the two main roads that lead into the town of Jinja.

We were let off the taxi in town and since we didn’t know where we were or geographically where we were going, we approached a herd of bodas parked on a corner of the main road to ask for rides. We told a couple of the drivers that we were going to the agricultural show and they had no idea what we were talking about. We tried to say it more clearly, but English wasn’t the problem. They seemed to not be aware of the biggest event in town. Finally, one lucky boda driver figured out what we were talking about, so we hopped on with him and one of his friends.

Ten minutes later, we had made it to the other side of town and were delivered into the typical chaos of crowds and vendors. Most of the people were walking in one direction, so we followed. The fairgrounds were in a nice-ish area that had big trees lining the roads and more green than you usually see in towns. We enjoyed the shade and scenery for a half a second, right up until Kaitlin called out that a bird had pooped on her. Yup, it was a big, juicy one right down the front of her shirt. We stopped to clean it off with tissue and, lacking public trash bins, threw the tissue on the ground just like everyone else does.

bird poop

The main entrance was recognizable by a massive crowd of people, mostly colored by students in their school uniforms. We had no choice but to move forward into this. We weaved and pushed our way through as far as we could go until there was no movement left. We fell into a line, which was funny because as totally crowded and tight as people were, there still somehow managed to be single file lines of bodies. Our line seemed promising for a little while, but eventually came to a standstill that lasted for what felt like forever. We waited in the sun, sweating from the heat of it as well as the enclosure of people around us. 45 minutes later, I paid my 4,000 shillings to the cashier, took the receipt required for entry, then waited another 5 minutes for the people ahead of me to argue out their positions in the line. The ticket person kept motioning for me to move ahead and I kept motioning back “where you do you want me to f***g go I can’t even step my foot one inch closer until you get these jerks without tickets out of the way of everyone who has tickets!” At least that’s what I hope he understood from me.

Jinja, Uganda, East Africa

On the other side of the entrance gates, the crowds weren’t much better. Erin announced she had to go to the bathroom again and I said I required food. There was a sea of vendor tents laid out in front of us, but no obvious direction about what was where. We decided to move forward, pushing our way through people, and encountered a sign-post with peeling and obstructed labels pointing to various attractions, including “restaurant.” We went that way and I quickly realized how big of a mistake it was to count on being able to find edible food at this public event. The displays of food and the smells were all of things frying and it made me want to throw up.

We got lucky and wandered straight into the teachers and students from the CDO’s primary school who were eating a plated lunch under a tent. After Erin was escorted to the nearby pit latrine, paying 300 shillings for the opportunity to use it, we decided that our best bet for food was to eat the same thing as the students. And by “we,” I mean “me,” because I’m the only one of the three of us that ever eats anything. I was served a heaping plate of rice that was topped with some boiled, flavorless beef. And so were the other two girls, despite not actually having ordered anything. We all ended up giving most of our food to the students who were thrilled to have the extra meat.

Jinja, Uganda, East Africa, Agricultural Show

After lunch, we decided to venture out to see if we could find the wild animals that had been advertised to us by people who’d attended the event earlier in the week. We referred back to the directional sign we’d first encountered and followed it to the “wild life” and “circus.” At no point along our flow down the crowded river of people did we ever see a circus, or even animals that could be considered wild. We did see booths of farm equipment, seeds, chickens, vendors, and other things that are only interesting when the barrier to stop and examine them is less than what were dealing with in fighting the crowd.

Jinja, Uganda, East Africa

We finally circled through to a different area of the fairgrounds and found our prize: camels to ride! Erin and Kaitlin rode first, while I took pictures. It was exactly what you’d expect for a fair in that the camel wrangler coaxes the laying animal to its feet, pulls on the rope attached to the halter to guide it forward, turns it around about 50 feet later, and waits on a kid with a thin stick to whap the camel in the butt to get it to keep moving back to its original spot in the middle of the crowd. All for 3,000 shillings.

Jinja, Uganda, East Africa, Camel Ride, Agricultural Show

One benefit of the camel ride is that we were able to get up high enough above the crowd to spot the “zoo.” We proceeded there and paid 2,000 shillings to enter. Now, considering we’re in Africa where conceivably exotic animals are not novelties, there were some odd things about this zoo. First, the Ugandans were really excited to see the animals. Second, this was the sorriest little animal display I’d ever seen. There was a lioness, a leopard, a monkey, a peacock, and an ostrich. The mammals were all sprawled out inside their boxy little cages, panting and looking limp. The ostrich was the only one that showed signs of life, pacing around the tiny little space like there was something wrong with him. I thought to myself about how unlucky these particular animals were in that their brothers and sisters were all out in the wild somewhere probably not too far way, and they were stuck here.

Jinja, Uganda, East Africa, Lioness, Zoo

I especially empathized with the animals when a teenage girl approached me and told me she wanted her picture taken with me. I was like, what? You’re asking me to step out of the viewing line because you want your picture taken with a mzungu? Yup, and she had a professional photographer in tow to do just that. A mzungu is just as exciting and memorable as the wild animals.

Jinja, Uganda, East Africa, mzungu

We were hot, exhausted, and ready to be done for the day. We bought the coldest soft-serve ice cream I’ve had in my life and strolled around looking for water bottles. Ten minutes before we were supposed to meet up with the CDO school to ride the bus home with them, I found the beer garden. What luck. I don’t even hardly drink beer at home, but here the thought of escaping the crowd and enjoying one or six cold draft beers sounded wonderful. I settled for chugging one while Erin fended off advances from a speed-suitor named Douglas.

Jinja, Uganda, East Africa

Someone had created a departure plan whereby we’d meet up with the teachers and students just outside the entrance to the grounds. So of course it was no surprise when we couldn’t find them anywhere. We wandered to the bus lot, trying to phone one of the teachers along the way. During this time we had a last minute invitation to meet other CDO administrators in town for a ride home, but we passed because we’d have to deal with finding bodas and getting there, versus “just” finding the school bus.

After about 30 minutes of grumping about not being able to locate the bus, we stumbled across it. All the kids were loaded and the few teachers were standing outside it. We stood chatting with them as there was no reason to get on the hot, crowded bus before it was ready to depart. At some point we heard something about how they were waiting on the driver to show up and also something about their being another bus for another class. Finally the bus was ready to leave and the young, male teacher transitioned from chatting to saying to us, totally nonchalantly, “Oh, sawr-ree… there is no rooom for yooo on thee bus. Cahn you take pub-lik trahnsport.” It wasn’t really a question.

Pretty much nothing in life surprises me anymore, and this was no exception. The situation wasn’t worth being upset over because it was so very typical of how things operate here. We’d long since missed our other ride home with the administrators, so now we were back to getting ourselves to the taxis in town, dealing with the pricing and chaos, taking the uncomfortable drive back to Iganga, and walking back to the CDO compound.

At this point in the trip to Uganda, I’d sufficiently educated the other interns about my regular need for quality food, and I insisted we stop in Jinja to get something before embarking on what could be a who-knows-how-long of a trip back. We walked from the fairgrounds into Jinja, this time knowing the route. I got a panini to-go, and we walked toward the taxi area. I ate my sandwich along the way, at one point noting that I was violating Ugandan courtesy by eating and walking at the same time. Oh well.

We had to walk by the location where my pal T-Bag does business and I almost managed to get through unnoticed, until I heard “Mah-dahm, Krist-een!” Aw, man. I had a quick chat with T-Bag and we ventured on. When we got to the taxis, via what was definitely not the most direct route, we didn’t argue about the 4,000 shillings.

Finally, finally we arrived back in Iganga and walked the painful mile home. I was sticky from sweat and caked with the rust-colored dust that covers everything here, and which was much worse than normal having spent a day at the fairgrounds. I immediately got in the shower, thankful that there was running water today, and scrubbed the day off me. I toweled off, pushed open the bathroom door, and was blasted with a wall of thick, trashy-smelling smoke. The incinerators. It’s seriously horrible to not have a way to breath clean air.

How I look forward to watching football games at home on my couch.

My writing is based on my experience and perspective. The facts are as I interpret them.

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2 thoughts on “THE STATE FAIR

  1. I went to a family reunion with a friend. They are ranchers and brought 2 horses for (mostly) the kids to ride. When I saw you on the Camel, all I could think was ” Ride em Cowgirl ” looks like you had fun, and your discretion of your adventures brings us all there.

    • I rode that puppy like a trail horse: mentally wanted it to run, but knew it wasn’t going any faster than the object it was following.

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