A City at The Foot of the Mountain
By Karen Scheepers
The east of Uganda does not have the density of impressive tourist attractions that one finds in the west, so why consider a trip to Mbale? There is enough in and around Mbale to please people for a few days.
Mbale’s often photographed bright pink clock tower at the centre of those jockeying manically for position to get around town is not what Mbale is REALLY all about. There is a lot of development of new ventures and a lot of busyness around the centre of town, but step away, just a little, and there is much to please the eye and heart.
The most obvious beauty of Mbale is the fascination of Wanale Ridge. The Luganda name of the ridge is ‘Nkokonjeru’ – “white chicken”. This white chicken of the name refers to the waterfall of the ridge – and here one is really spoilt for choice. On dry days three different falls can be seen from the town. But on rainy days there are several more falls. These do not remain white! Various shades of chocolate colourscome tumbling down from the hills leading up to Mount Elgon when the rains fall on the ridge, which can be very often.
It is the rocky buttresses of Wanale Ridge that give Mbale its name: “mabale” means ‘stones’ in Lugisu. The various hues of the rocks remain alluring even after spending a long time in Mbale.
One might consider Mbale as simply a stopover town, on the way to Kidepo, PianUpe or a trek into the Mount Elgon area. The wide range of supermarkets offering good supplies, the access to fuel and fresh produce at the markets see Mbale filling this role easily. But it is worth considering a longer stay just for the sake of what Mbale offers, particularly for its diverse cultural and social appeal.
Fairly near to Mbale, just west of the Kumi road, one can find indigenous rock art at Kakoro. Although the art itself is interesting, more valuable than the art is an ancient rock gong, apparently the best preserved such object in Uganda.
Mbale is home to a varied range of people living together harmoniously. A large Muslim University is accommodated in the town as well as a few different Christian universities.
Near the town, in the Nabugoye hills, one can find a large settlement of Ugandan Jews, the Abayudaya. The commitment to their Jewish faith is evident in the appearance of the settlements, with a Star of David prominently painted onto many houses. The Abayudaya still keep to all sacraments of their Jewish faith, as they have been doing for over 100 years. With a bit or organization ahead of time, one can arrange to spend some time staying in this community.
Mbale also attracts people interested in culture for the spectacle of the Bugisu circumcision ceremonies (imbalu) in August, but mostly in December in even numbered years. The initiates can be seen parading through the town, faces covered in ash, with bodies dressed in plantain leaves or animal skins. The circumcision ceremonies themselves are open for anybody, including tourists to attend, for an anthropological and perhaps biologically astounding show. Local hotels will have details of where the ceremonies should be taking place.
The people around Mbale are particularly friendly, even by Ugandan standards. It might be for this reason that Mbale is home to several NGOs serving various needs in the community. The only Cure hospital in Uganda (which assists in taking care of children with severe head and brain complications) is based in the town.
Various hotels in the town can make a stay very pleasant. There are several options to choose from across the spectrum of financial ability. Numerous visitors prefer staying in either Mount Elgon hotel or the flashy Mbale Resort Hotel. These are both situated in Senior Quarters, closer to the Ridge than the centre of town. The two hotels named both have swimming pools, steam baths and comfortable accommodations. The food in both hotels is fairly good, with service a bit faster at Mount Elgon hotel. Both hotels’ restaurants offer a range including good steaks and other western style food to tasty Italian dishes. There are other options for food: Nurali’s restaurant in town is a hit with resident expats.
The coffee grown in the Mount Elgon foothills is definitely worth stopping for. It is possible to buy from the large co-operative factories on the Pallisa road but several supermarkets in town stock the Arabica roasts grown on the local slopes. Chat ‘n Chinos, in Naboa road, serves fantastic cappuccinos and very tasty brownies. They also prepare a range of Mexican dishes.
There are a few stores in town that sell curios and handcrafted goods, and a meander through the markets offers much to interest the inquisitive. It is a fun addition to your mementos to stop for a while to have personally sized flip-flops made from recycled car tyres. (Ask around, there will be a friendly face to lead you to the shoe makers!)
Mbale is certainly one place where one should go chasing waterfalls. A walk of about 1 ½ hours from Senior Quarters could take you up to the central falls, and more friendly faces of locals would be willing to guide you around the various sights of the Ridge. The more sedentary soul will enjoy simply gazing up at the ridge or the various falls from the gardens of Mount Elgon Hotel. There are several drinking spots around town and the more popular places have pool tables, DSTV and cool beers. For the more adventurous there are drinking ceremonies on the ridge – drinking pombe from a communal pot through your own long straw.
Sipi Falls, an hour away or so, is definitely worth considering for a visit too. The huge falls are breathtaking and this part of the country is more accessible than a trip up Mount Elgon, or even along the dadly rutted roads of a drive up Wanale Ridge. It is possible to make enquiries or bookings for Mount Elgon at the UWA offices in Mbale, just a short distance from the Mount Elgon hotel.
Mbale is sometimes known for its three rainy seasons, so a bit of rain protection is a necessity. The storms often build up in the mornings to give an afternoon shower, so planning the day carefully is possible and wise.
The roads are very badly potholed, even by Ugandan standards, so take your time. Draw in the beauty of the large trees, great rock buttresses and waterfalls and consider a trip out to the east sometime.