Thoughts From Places: Murchison Falls

So, Murchison Falls!

I had a hard time dealing with the money aspect of it, I think because I didn’t feel like I had a lot of money growing up. We maybe went on one big trip a year as a family, stayed in-state and saved up the whole year to do that. There were years when not all of us went. Murchison was an all-inclusive (except for some meals) trip, and so it felt strange that I gave a large sum of money at the beginning, and then everything else was the responsibility of our guide. I’m glad we did that, because it took any timing/driving/permit responsibility away from us, but at the same time (as I’ve mentioned in previous posts), not having control was strange.

I only thought about this after the fact – our guide gave us no emergency numbers, no instructions should he suddenly have a heart attack or otherwise be incapacitated. We saw no emergency medical centers nor were they mentioned, and I’m pretty sure there was no med-evac to come for us should something go wrong. There were other cars in the park that day, but I’m unsure what would have happened had they come upon some problem – the people in those cars paid for a safari, not a rescue mission, and helping someone would definitely infer speeding through the park, not stopping for picture. We actually encountered this problem  in a lighter way – a few people working at a ranger post wanted to get a ride with us to a different place in the park. Our guide explained we would be moving too slow for them, and stopping to take pictures. At this point I also didn’t want them to ride with us. I felt a sense of ownership of our car, that we had paid a large sum of money to be alone, in our car, not giving rides to park workers. This didn’t make me feel good after thinking it.

At this point I felt like an outsider, like a tourist. Because anywhere else in Uganda, people do this. People stop and give other people rides; that is the culture. But it felt like a different world inside the park, like we were truly foreigners, because only foreigners would decline to give a ride to someone else.

Being in the park also made me think about what we term exotic, in that African animals are exotic because they don’t live in temperate or seasonal climates. Whereas to Africans, bears, raccoons, etc are exotic because those animals cannot live on the equator. We have this idea that African animals live in this ‘other’ place, that is not natural or normal, that is basically the Lion King. There was an Onion article a while ago (or maybe a real article) stating that most Americans think of Africa as one big game reserve, which is definitely not true. But not many Africans take safaris to North America to see our animals, or Europe either.

Another thing I noticed was the overall lack of noise. Compared to America, Uganda is a very noisy place. I say this not having lived in large cities such as New York or Chicago, which I assume are noisy constantly. But in the sort of suburban, small city life I grew up with, noise in public was generally kept to a minimum. The guy with the subwoofers in his trunk was the exception, not the rule.
In Uganda, music especially is woven into every part of life. If you can get speakers and power, you play music. This often results in dueling tunes, as well as any music coming from cars, people shouting, livestock making a lot of noise (even in towns), etc.

Inside the park, no cars are allowed to play music, and you as a driver are not allowed to honk your horn (in Uganda this is called hooting). So in that sense you believe you have maybe left Uganda, or are in a different country all together. The only sounds come from the animals, and from the conversations you have with your car-mates and your guide/driver. It reminded me of when my family would take our trips up North each year. Sure, we would play music for a while, but eventually we would fall asleep and silence would fall. Even when we reached our campground, there were minimal noises outside the forest, and you truly believed you had ‘gotten away.’

The park was also not always named Murchison Falls. It was originally named Kabalega National Park, after the Omukama (like a king) of the Bunyoro Kingdom, which was a pretty powerful kingdom between the 13th and 19th centuries. Kings still exist in Uganda but have mostly symbolic and cultural significance now, versus lawmaking or judicial powers.

The park takes its name from Roderick Murchison, a guy who has frankly a lot of things named after him on Earth (and a crater on the moon). He was mainly a geologist, and at the time the park was named was President of the Royal Geological Society (round abouts 1863). But who did the naming you may ask? Murchison himself never made it to the park which bears his name, but instead it was one of few women explorers in Uganda in the late 1800s who named the waterfall (and later the park took the name). She was called Florence Baker, a Hungarian woman who had been sold as a slave to one of the men heading the expedition, Samuel Baker. She actually ended up marrying this guy, which is probably one of the most severe cases of Stockholm Syndrome ever.

I tell you all of this to say this: the name of this park reflects a story that has nothing to do with the place itself. I asked our guide before I had done any of this research what he thinks about the name, and whether it should be changed back. He sort of shrugged and gave a non-answer. I wasn’t sure if this was because he was supposed to toe the line in terms of what the government should or shouldn’t be doing, or if he truly didn’t care. From our conversations, he does a lot of safaris year round, so the name isn’t stopping him from making a living.

But on the heels of President Obama returning the original name of the Alaskan mountain Denali, it makes me ask: Do names matter? Does the answer to that question depend on your culture?
Congo is another example of places which were all renamed after the Belgians fled. The government felt it important to have names that reflected the people who lived there, not the people who came later.

In my home state of Michigan, there are many places which still bear Native American names, but at the same time places have French, Dutch, English, or German names. The names of the natives mixed with the names of the colonists. And that’s true in Uganda as well. There are plenty of things named in local languages which hold their history tight to their chest.

Maybe you skipped all this to see the pictures, and that’s okay too. But I hope at least some of this makes you think – what’s in a name?