Uganda map:
Uganda - Rwenzoris and the Witch Doctor
Dec 22, 2004

Nyakalengija - Mountains of the Moon

Nyakalengija - river

Ugandan kids





Witch doctor

Witch doctor's husband

Nyakalengija was my next stop - don't ask me how to pronounce it.  The previous journal entry ended in the dusty little town of Kasese.  From Kasese, I took a shared taxi up into the mountains, and then a motorbike taxi a bit further, to the village of Nyakalengija at the entrance of the Rwenzori Mountains National Park. 

The Rwenzoris, also known as "Mountains of the Moon", are a snow-covered mountain range that forms the boundary between Uganda and Congo.  You don't generally think of snow on the equator, but there it is.  I've been told that the week-long trek through the mountains is amazing, but I had no aspirations of climbing them after my disaster on Mt.  Meru.  Instead, I planned just a day trip - a nice hike into the hills to catch a glimpse of the mountains beyond.

I slept at the new guesthouse attached to the park headquarters.  In the morning, I went to see the rangers to organize an afternoon hike.  It should have been easy.  Who would have thought that the National Parks have a bureaucracy.  They had no price list for day trips.  The bureaucratic machine stumbled forward.  For a 4 hour hike, they tried to charge me the only price they had, $80, which was the full price for a day and night of camping including porters to carry my gear.  There was no way that I was going to pay that.  I tried haggling, and in a more corrupt country the ranger and I would have come to a compromise.  But in Uganda, the government officials are surprisingly "by the book". 

I abandoned the idea of hike in the park, and moved to the Ruboni campsite 100 feet down the road.  It was a good move.  This village of Nyakalengija quickly became my favorite place in Uganda.  A single rocky, dirt road led through the valley.  On either side of the road, farms were growing avocado, coffee, and pineapple.  Behind the farms, the hills rose sharply towards the sky.  A powerful white water river rushed through the valley.  It was a place of beauty and contrast.  The green, tropical valley seemed out of place next to the rocky mountains in the distance.  The sun was hot, but the river was frigid from the snow runoff. 

The people of Nyakalengija were fantastic.  In East Africa, the people largely ignore tourists; not unfriendly, but not friendly either.  But in this valley, the people, particularly the kids, were super-friendly just like the kids of SE Asia.  The campsite itself was small and quaint.  I don't carry a tent, so they put me up in a small room attached to the gift shop.  No other tourist came by in the two days that I stayed there.  The guesthouse is community run, and it includes little personal touches like a flower garden which you rarely find in cheap hotels.  They are now building a new campsite in a great location further up the hills - I told them I'd advertise it for them. 

National park treks were out of my budget.  Fortunately, the campsite organized treks for the very reasonable price of $3.50.  The campsite manager led me on a hike and brought with him a reptile specialist who found chameleons for me to photograph.  His ability to instantly spot the tiny camouflaged reptiles among the dense foliage amazed me.  It wasn't until the end of the hike that I learned his trick.  Chameleons don't move.  They stay in the same shrub day after day.  Once he's found them, it's trivial to find them again.

The fruit grown in the valley was fantastic.  You just can't compare a pineapple that you'd buy in a supermarket to the unbelievably delicious fresh fruit here.  And then there's the coffee.  Growing up in the fast-paced city life, I often drank 4-5 cups of coffee each day.  But until Uganda, I'd never seen a coffee plant, and didn't even know what a coffee berry looked like.  It's easy to be a coffee snob in America.  But, in the coffee growing regions of Africa and Central America it is usually frustratingly hard to get a cup of fresh ground coffee.  The locals assume tourists want instant coffee, which is imported and more expensive.  Eventually, I managed to convince the staff at the campsite to make me a pot of fresh coffee.  I feel a bit guilty about all the work they had to put into it.  They picked the coffee from a bush across the road, dried it in the sun, roasted it in a fire, and then ground the beans by hand in a mortar and pestle -- all for my one pot of coffee.  It wasn't the best cup of coffee I ever had, but it was an amazing experience drinking coffee among the coffee fields.  I savored each sip from that pot while enjoying my breakfast of pineapple and avocado.

The campsite brochure listed all sorts of other experiences and adventures in addition to the nature hikes.  I saw a trip to visit the local witch doctor, and my heart got racing.  Tracking down and visiting witch doctors is one of the last great adventures left.  In Myanmar, I heard rumors of a witch doctor near Mt.  Victoria. I tried to get there, but was turned back by Immigration police and almost arrested by the secret police.  This time, I had a twice the reason to go.  The adventure of seeing a witch doctor is reason enough to go, but I also had my ongoing stomach problems.  Perhaps the witch doctor could help. 

A sick kid's coughing kept me up most of the night.  Roosters crowing finished the job by waking me up well before sunrise.  Drugs and alcohol can lead to creative genius -- Sleep deprivation can lead to ummmm...  something.  I scribbled down this song on the way up the hill to see the witch doctor.  Against my better judgment, I feel an odd compulsion to post it:

I failed to find one in Myanmar, so
I'm going to see the witch doctor
Oh...  I'm going to see the witch doctor

I'm puttin' on my Sunday best --
Dirty shorts and a clean t-shirt
And...  I'm going to see the witch doctor

I'm having fresh coffee
grown across the road
And...  I'm going to see the witch doctor

I'm having fresh pineapple
and delicious avocado
And...  I'm going to see the witch doctor

A guy with a AK47 is walking by
And...  I'm going to see the witch doctor

What is going to happen next?

Ummm...  yeah....  anyways... 

The path up to the witch doctor's hut was treacherous and muddy.  At times, I had to long-jump over streams of army ants which blocked the path.  Half-way up a mountain, we arrived at two mud huts sitting by themselves.  Chickens strolled casually around the huts picking at the ground.  My guide started yelling for the witch doctor. 

The witch doctor arrived after a few minutes.  Her husband arrived about 10 minutes later.  He was the more memorable of the two.  He had been farming further up the mountain and had to hike down.  I don't know how he managed the steep slopes as he walked with a heavy cane and struggled even on the flat ground.  As soon as he arrived, he dressed up in purple sport coat.  To complete the picture with the heavy cane and purple sport coat, he wore huge coke bottle glasses and had only 4 teeth left.  They both seemed happy to have me visit and I'd like to think that it wasn't just for the money. 

The witch doctor explained that the people of the valley worship Kita Samba, the god who lives on the mountain with his four wives.  They also worship their ancestors who have a lot of power.  She dressed up in hyena skins showing the traditional dress.  Ten or twenty years ago this would have been the daily dress.  Now, everyone wears t-shirts and baseball caps.  The husband and wife duo then sang songs to the ancestors.  The songs were all happy -- They believe that a happy ancestor is more likely to grant requests.

Then we discussed my stomach problems.  The witch doctor said that their ancestors would not be angry with me, so it was unlikely the ancestors were causing my stomach problems.  Instead of any witch doctoring, she offered me two packets of traditional herbal medicine.  I thanked her for the tour and the medicine, and gave her a small donations.  My guide and I headed back down to the village.

When I returned to Kasese, I followed the witch doctor's directions and took the medicine twice a day.  For 3 days I thought that it was working.  But all it did was give me a bit of constipation.  On the 3rd day, my stomach exploded in a big, ugly, slimy mess.  A witch doctor cure was worth a try, but it was time to go back to western medicine. 

The highlight of my trip to Uganda was supposed to be seeing the mountain gorillas.  I gave up on that, because spending $400 for one hour with the gorillas seemed absurd.  Also, tracking gorillas with a guide, a guard, and a half dozen other tourists seemed like a very touristy experience rather than an exciting adventure. 

The gorillas and the witch doctors are both almost extinct.  Visiting the witch doctor became a replacement trip for me.  Visiting a witch doctor didn't feel at all touristy, despite the fact that I took a tour to get there.  I'm not sure when the last tourist hiked up to visit her.  The gorillas might survive, but as a tourist attraction, more disneyland-like every year.  The witch doctors are doomed.  The world is getting smaller, and the old ways are getting pushed out by modernization.  When this witch doctor dies, I don't think another will take her place.  I'm glad that I managed to see a witch doctor before they're all gone. 

barce - Dec 23, 2004

This was a fun entry to read.  The description of having fresh coffee in the coffee fields made me almost get a cup of coffee at Peet's.  Did the Witch Doctor who mentioned Kita Simba say anything more about the polygamous local deity?


Unfortunately, no.  I posted all that I know about Kita Samba and his wives.


b - Jan 13, 2005

Among Nyakalengija's many abundant crops, you must have missed their substantial marijuana fields.  Or perhaps you left that part out on purpose. 


Somehow I did miss that.  Had I know about it I would have definitely, at least, written about it. 


t - Feb 01, 2005

i haven't been to nyakalengija, but if they do have marijuana it would have been a good remedy for your stomach ailments.  chemo patients have had great success with it fighting nausea.  i've had great success with it too...


Thanks Tim,

While marijuana seems to do wonders for curing pain and nausea, I don't think that it actually cures bacterial dysentery.  :-)


Scott Wayne - Feb 15, 2005

hi Adam,
I've been working on a USAID project in Uganda, which is trying to help with tourism to the Rwenzoris.  As one small way of helping, I started a yahoo usergroup about the Rwenzoris, which is at:
I encourage you to join and circulate your Rwenzori story to the group.  Best wishes with your travels.
Scott Wayne


Good luck.  The people in the Rwenzoris were super-friendly and I wish them and your project the best of luck.

Here's a clickable link to this group:


Steve - Mar 01, 2005

I have just returned to Australia after a one week trip to Kasese, I will be returning there on 15th March to take up a one year contract training position.
The Rwenzori's are awsome and I look forward to seeing more of them.


Ralph Baldwin - May 22, 2005

Thanks for posting your experiences in Ruboni.  I spent time there in late July/early August 2003.  We made the circuit in nine days summiting Stanley.  I met some wonderful people in Nyakalengija.  High in the mountains there is a monolithic spire to one side of Coronation Glacier at the edge of the Stanley Plateau called Kitasamba, the deity of which your witch doctor spoke.  People from the village guided the Duke of Abruzzi up into the mountains in 1906 to make the first ascents.  Also, there are old trade routes up and down drainages which cross over the Rwenzori Mountains into the Congo from the village.  Should you return, the Bujuku-Mubuku Circuit is a magical but sometimes difficult trip with extraordinary Afro-alpine vegetation.


Thanks for the great info.


Felex kamalha - Feb 19, 2007

I am from Ruboni community and have been working with this community project aiming at sustainable development. 

Thank you very much for the publicity and I wish you well in all you are doing.  Please endavour to come back again.


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