PAPYRUS GREW in thick leafy clumps, as fresh as salad, by the lakeshore just inside the Uganda border. The tall graceful stalks swayed, the feathery heads nodded as my bus passed by, traveling west on a back road from the border town of Busia. I had not seen papyrus growing anywhere in Kenya, even on the Kisumu edge of Lake Victoria, but as soon as I crossed into Uganda I saw rafts of the tall, delicately tufted plant in the swampland by the lake. It was like further proof that Uganda is the source of the Nile. Downstream in Egypt where real papyrus no longer existed, I had seen images of the lovely plant picked out in bright vegetable dye on the walls of pharaonic tombs and on the tops of columns at Karnak. Anything that linked Egypt to the heart of Africa interested me: papyrus, lotuses, crocs, hippos, crested cranes, baboons, lions, elephants and their ivory, even the images of slaves, and the river water itself. “How did you first come here?” I used to ask old-timers and elderly missionaries in the sixties. Many would say, “Down the Nile.” That meant: by boat and train through Egypt, by train to Khartoum, by paddle steamer from Khartoum to Juba, and then fifty-eight miles by road to Uganda.
I had come by “chicken bus”—the buses that were full of Africans and their produce, including trussed-up chickens and infants so swaddled they looked mummified. One chicken bus had dropped me at the Kenya border. Good-humored hawkers and touts, moneychangers, and beggars descended on me. They followed me, running, across no man’s land, a hot stony halfmile without any shade, until they were turned back at the chainlink fence and razor wire on the Uganda side. Something was revealed about a person’s nature by the way he tried to run—more revealing when he ran toward you than when he tried to run away
At the Uganda checkpoint I went through the same formalities again, a crowd shoving one another to get into a small shed, for their passports to be stamped, and outside more moneychangers and beggars. I bought a newspaper and read about bomb outrages that had occurred in Kampala the previous day: “election violence.” On the next bus, on the far side, I reflected that a person who has not crossed an African border on foot has not really entered the country, for the airport in the capital is no more than a confidence trick; the distant border, what appears to be the edge, is the country’s central reality. Right from the frontier, Uganda seemed a tidier, better-governed place than Kenya, and it was visibly more fertile, palmier, lusher, with rice paddies being planted and tended, and banana trees—all sorts of bananas. Ugandans say there are sixty varieties, for they are one of the staples here. This southeastern part of the country was green and low-lying and swampy, the big lake seeping into the hinterland.
The roads were in better shape, and so were the houses, old and new, than the ones on the Kenyan side—more reminders that Kenya was on the way down and perhaps Uganda was on the way up. Sugar cane was being grown in the fields here, as in the past, on estates that had always been owned by Indians. Given the world price of sugar, and most other commodities, this was somewhat surprising. Certainly farmers in Africa were earning less for growing coffee, tea, cotton, sugar, and tobacco, and in some places were going back to subsistence farming, letting the cash crops die and planting corn for their own use.
Late in the afternoon my bus passed the town of Jinja, where at Owen Falls Lake Victoria flows north—the Victoria Nile—to Lake Kyoga and onward to Murchison Falls and Lake Albert, into the Albert Nile. This simple progression perplexed ancient speculators such as Ptolemy and the European explorers in Africa until the expedition of 1857–58, when Sir Richard Burton and John Speke crossed from the east coast to survey the lake region of the interior. While Burton lay ill in what is now Tabora, in Tanzania, it was Speke who traveled to the southern edge of the great lake, to get a glimpse. He had no idea of the lake’s true size, but from what he was told by Arabs, he surmised that at its northern shore was an outflow, the headwaters of the Nile. Burton challenged him on this, and denounced him for his haste, for being too impatient to navigate the lake. Speke was defensive but insecure; he had a fragile disposition anyway (he was later to kill himself). Yet Speke’s intuition was correct: Lake Victoria was later proven to be the Nile’s source.