How Ugandans charmed one tourist with their street food and love
- Written by Ernest Jjingo
As many took a rest from work to celebrate Eid ul Fitr, I escorted a group of tourists to Murchison Falls national park to check out the beauty Uganda has to offer.
Among these was 44-year-old Ilbra Yacoob, an Iranian-born American tours and travel agent from California, USA. Just a few minutes after setting off in Kampala, Yacoob asked if there was a spot where she could buy some roasted chicken along the way.
We told her we would stop at one of the roadside markets along the Kampala-Gulu highway to satisfy her craving. We made the stopover at Balikyejusa market in Kasaala town after Kasana Luweero; whereas other tourists were interested in watermelons, pineapples and yellow bananas, Yacoob’s mind was fixed on getting that roasted chicken directly from the charcoal grill.
She crossed the road looking for the roasting place to choose her piece and after selecting her juicy piece off the stove; she requested the barbecue man whether she could get behind the stove and try roasting the meat herself, which he accepted.
She got behind the heated charcoal stove and turned several skewers of chicken over the fire, not bothered about the smoke that filled the air.
The barbecue man was delighted to have a mzungu as a customer and even more surprised at how interested she was in getting involved in the making of the chicken.
She added to her purchases two beef skewers. When the meat was ready, she hugged and took pictures with the barbecue guy, then went on to enjoy her delicacies, pulling one piece of meat after another into her mouth. For Yacoob, what makes Uganda’s street food special for her is that it makes her feel connected to the local communities.
“I feel like I am able to immerse myself in this culture because when I go to a fancy restaurant, yes I know a chef is working hard to create these delicious dishes but the connection I get with these people who make this street food is different. The fact that we got deep into the market and I was there with the locals, I felt like I had come here and accomplished my goal, which is experience a country, " she said.
She added: “For me to be able to stand with the gentleman at the grill with all the locals and eat what they eat everyday makes me feel like I am one of them. In order for me to understand the culture and appreciate the destination Uganda, I must blend in with them and see it in their eyes. Yes, it is just chicken on a stick but it is chicken on a stick that the local people have every day and if I am able to participate in that, it makes it even more delicious.”
Yacoob also notes experiences like these evoke childhood memories of her in Iran when she used to go with her grandfather to markets and vendors there would be grilling foods like these which they would eat on the way back home.
“It is a combination of my past, love for food and connecting with people. Whether it’s the roasted chicken on a stick, the fried fish that the ladies sell on the wooden booths on the roadside, or even the rolex, it is always a must-have for me when I come to Uganda and these are always such special moments. You can just buy your fish, go home, grab it with your fingers and eat it with your chapatti or posho,” she said.
On the way back from the park – which Yacoob also enjoyed immensely – we made a stopover at the same market and this time round she managed to convince her fellow tourists to also check out these delicacies and they sure enjoyed some roasted sticks of liver on top of dancing around with the vendors.
This was, however, not Yacoob’s first time to the Pearl of Africa, having been here last year – though her first trip to the continent was in 2019 when she visited Kenya.
She says she was fascinated by the beauty of Africa which intrigued her to learn more about the continent, but unfortunately as she was planning to explore more countries, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, bringing travel to a halt.
“I had a lot of down time during Covid and I took that opportunity to educate myself about African countries, and Uganda stuck out for me the most. The more I learnt about it (Uganda), the more I thought, ‘Oh my God I cannot wait to visit this country’. It was one of those that through reading about it created anticipation in me and I could not wait to visit.”
While attending Magical Kenya (Kenya’s showcase of its tourism potential) last year, Yacoob decided to extend her trip to cover all the East African countries, Uganda inclusive.
“When I finally got to Uganda, it was a dream come true; it was everything I expected and more. I fell in love with the people, I was blown away by the genuine love and high level of hospitality. You feel like family here and amongst friends. I was also enamored by the beauty this country has to offer; the landscape, the food, the wildlife that I was looking forward to seeing, the culture; it is just so rich in so many aspects,” Yacoob reminisces.
While in Uganda for the first time, Yacoob visited Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National park where she met the Buhoma community and with the help of a local NGO, Ride for a Woman, she got the opportunity to participate in the preparation of different Uganda local cuisines like luwombo, matooke, goat stew, posho, millet, cassava, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and the rolex.
“I got the opportunity to make groundnut sauce from scratch, where I pounded the nuts myself. We also prepared goats stew, where we first roasted the goat’s meat over a charcoal stove. I also made millet bread from scratch by grinding the millet seeds with my own hands. It was such a beautiful experience and it felt like I was with my sisters, brothers and aunties. It was very rewarding to get my hands messy and cook the food myself and at the end, we all sat and ate together like a family,” she said.
For her second time in Uganda, Yacoob has been part of a group of international and regional tour operators who were invited by Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) to take part in this year’s Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo (POATE). These got a chance to explore Uganda’s tourist attractions and familiarize themselves with what the country has to offer.
Yacoob and seven other tourists explored Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in Nakasongola, had a game drive in Murchison Falls national park, a boat cruise along the River Nile, viewed the Murchison falls along River Nile, as well as trekked chimpanzees in Budongo forest.
Describing her experience touring these places, she said, “The Ziwa rhino sanctuary was a very cool experience for me. I have seen rhinos in the wild before but I had never been that close to them. It was very magical to see so many of them together.
Budongo was a different forest environment for me especially having just come from Rwanda and having done Nyungwe forest, Bwindi and Kyambura last year. It was good to see a different ecosystem because even though they are all forests, they are still very different in their own way.
We saw about 15 chimpanzees and we had to jump from one side of the forest to another by crossing the road. This chimpanzee trekking was much easier compared to some of the other ones I have done which I think is good because it makes it ideal for people with different levels of fitness.”
However, it is not just praises that Yacoob has for Uganda; she detests the country’s uncleanliness which is clearly visible on the streets which she says shows that people here don’t take care of their country and its environment.
“I noticed the day I drove across the border from Rwanda to Uganda last year how well-manicured Rwanda was with no trash littered around, which showed that the people there took care of their country. I feel like I have seen so much trash and plastic on the Ugandan roads that it breaks my heart because people who come into this country as tourists or visitors, that is the first thing they see and it is not fair to Uganda to be seen that way because it is so beautiful. As a first impression, it is important to show that you care about your country and its environment. If every person could be mindful about picking up their trash and putting it in the trash can, that would be great,” she said.
Nevertheless, Yacoob still looks forward to coming back to Uganda and explore more aspects like the Rwenzori Mountains, Kidepo Valley and Semuliki national parks. But away from the scenic beauty, the wildlife and the physical features, Yacoob’s highlight of being in Uganda is always the connection she makes with the people.
“Every moment that I have had here where I find myself the happiest I have been because of the people; the connection and interactions I have had with them. I am amazed at the love, kindness and simplicity of the connection that I have with the people here. It’s very innocent, pure and loving.”