“Drink Fresh Water,” urges another.
And then: “This Land is Not for Sale.”
“Is that about pressures from the West?” I say to my guide. “About all the YouTube hype over the Kony film?”
My guide simply stares. “The sign means this,” he replies. “The owner does not wish to sell.”
Before I came here, Uganda was a land I thought I knew. “Kony 2012,” the Invisible Children video exposing the abuses of Joseph Kony’s rebel army, was all over the Internet. Not far behind in the news and chat cycle were reports about virulent anti-gay bills introduced by Ugandan politicians.
Where to go and what to know in Uganda.
Still, there are the signs. Signs of a place where daily life is distant from the wars and issues and debate. Distant, even, from the country’s years of British rule and from former dictator Idi Amin. Landlocked in East Africa, Uganda is one of the poorest nations in the world, with a population that’s more than 85 percent rural.
Outside the big cities, such as Entebbe and the capital, Kampala, I find that almost no one I talk to knows about “Kony 2012.” I’m American, and all I get are smiles. Sometimes a little dip of the head. An outstretched hand.
“Come to see our animals,” says a man I talk to at a store along a country road. “We are different here than Kenya, Tanzania. You can get up close. You will see them. And of course, they will see you.”
The sign of the rhino
At my first stop outside Kampala, there are still more messages on signs. Here at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, some of these signs display rhinoceros shapes and say: “Beware.” I’ll try. I’m with a group that’s trying to get as near as we can to Uganda’s newest rhinos, reintroduced here after their disappearance from the area in the early 1980s.
According to our guide, a man named Opio Raymond, some of the sanctuary rhinos come from Kenya. Some are from Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom. One is named Obama.
“NEVER move in front of the guide,” we read. “ALWAYS move in single file.”
Then comes the part in bold:
“Should the rhinos show any signs of annoyance, you should STAND BEHIND A LARGE TREE IF AVAILABLE. OR MOVE NEAR A TREE AND BE READY TO CLIMB.”
I take a look around. The trees I can see look a lot like saplings. Thin and scrawny. They look like trees that rhinos might eat for a snack.
“These are white rhinos, though they may look gray,” says Raymond, as he leads us up to a fence. We pass through a gate and form our line. I have never walked in a file as organized as ours. Raymond seems pleased.
He scans our clothing, spots someone’s crimson shirt. “The rhino does not see well,” he notes. “But when they see pure red, they do not like it.”
“What should I do?” asks the tourist with the shirt. Raymond just shrugs.