Tag Archives | africa

Five Reasons to Visit Uganda

Yesterday, I was a guest on a radio program talking about our recent juvenile justice work in Africa.  One of the initial questions was about the “perils” of visiting Africa: Is it safe?  Is it a major endeavor?

Life on the outskirts of Gulu

I think most people want to visit Africa at some point in their lives–if not for some humanitarian purpose, then at least to go on safari or see the mountain gorillas.  Africa is indeed an amazing and diverse continent that is not to be missed.  Uganda, in particular, is a great country—I just made my fifth trip this.  If you’re considering a visit to Africa (or you’ve never desired to visit Africa, but might unexpectedly find yourself there one day), it’s a good place to start any journey.  As a matter of fact, Lonely Planet ranked Uganda the #1 travel destination for 2012Rwanda is also at the top of my list–and I recommend seeing both countries on the same trip.  With Rwanda fast-paced development, it’s surpassed some of the “rustic charms” you might expect from Africa.  Kigali feels like a European city–an example of the direction much of Africa is heading.

Here are five good reasons to visit Uganda:

  1. It’s Relatively Safe and Stable – Uganda is relatively.  In the 6 years that I’ve been sending large groups to Uganda, the only incident we had was a stolen laptop once.  I suspect we would be hard pressed to have the same results in Europe.  It’s also relatively stable.  I say relatively because there is the occasional protest—we watch things carefully, but no political situation has yet stopped us from going.  But, if you look around Uganda, it looks like a safehaven.  Congo: basketcase.  Sudan: Basketcase.  Burundi: basketcase.  Kenya: Mixed—as I left Uganda they had terrorism warnings.  The only neighboring country with stability is Rwanda—a personal favorite to visit.
  2. Safaris – Kenya and Tanzania typically get highest marks for safaris in the region.  While I haven’t had the chance to go on safari in either country, the gave drives in Uganda have not left me disappointed.  When I bring groups, we always make the 5 hour drive north to Murchison Falls National Park.  Entering Murchison is like driving into Jurassic Park on red dirt roads through a dense forest.  You finally arrive at the Nile where you have to take a ferry to the delta where the animals make their home.  No trip to Murchison is complete without a boat ride up the Nile to the base of the falls.  If you’ve ever been on Disney’s Jungle Cruise ride, you will feel like what you’re experiencing isn’t real, but some Imagineer’s version of Africa.  I recommend staying at Paraa Lodge—everything you would except from a game lodge.  Then, early in the morning, you rise to go on a game drive.  Elephants, giraffes, water buffalo, and even—this year I finally saw them—lions.  The only missing animal in Africa’s big 5 is the rhino—they no longer live in the wild in Uganda, but there is a rhino farm if time permits.
  3. Diverse Cultures – Uganda has diversity.  We learned from our work with kids that there are dozens of actively spoken languages and dozens of self-identifying people groups.  Northern Uganda is not like Kampala, and it’s definitely not like Karamoja.  Those who live in the south sometimes can’t understand a word spoken by those from the north—they could easily be different countries!  With so much in such a small country, it makes for an interesting visit that will keep you on your toes.
  4. Adventure – Uganda has a growing adventures tourism industry, with a lot of room for more.  My favorite thing to do in Uganda is go whitewater rafting on the Nile River—some of the world’s best Class 5 rapids.  In addition to rafting, there are the game drives, bungee jumping for those comfortable with local safety inspections, visiting waterfalls, climbing mountains, and, of course, simple travel throughout the country is an adventure in itself.  I would bet that the adventure travel industry sector in Uganda is only getting started.
  5. There’s Even More to Do – Despite visiting five times now, I’ve always got more to do.  I want to climb Mount Elgon and the Rwenzori Mountains.  They are fairly serious climbs—no day trip from Kampala.  I learned of some islands in Lake Victoria that I would like to visit one day.  I’ve never been to Queen Elizabeth Park for a safari and I still want to visit Karamoja.  I guess I need to go back–several more times.

As Pepperdine Law professor Carol Chase remarked mid-way through our recent trip, “I would have never thought about bringing my family on a vacation Africa, but now I wonder why not.”  Try it for yourself–you might be surprised.


Wrapping Up the Masindi Project

The third and final day of the Masindi Project was busy.  We started at 9 a.m. on Wednesday with most of the team calling final witnesses in for interview.  I went out to the Remand Home with two students, Steve and Megan, for some follow up projects.


We called the two boys for follow first.  We asked our driver, whom we had just met, if he might be willing to translate for us (since none of us spoke Swahili, Arua, Acholi or any of the various local languages.  He happily agreed to help.

While the interviews began, I took photos and video around the Remand Home.  I haven’t made a documentary film in about two years, so I’m feeling eager for a new project.  I’d like to do something on the remand situation, but I haven’t put much thought into yet.  I also worked with Steve to take photos of the kids that we would print and give to them later.

Continue Reading →


Day 2 at Jail for Kids in Africa

We are very busy here. The Remand Home project (jail for kids) in Uganda is moving along quickly with many cases in need of attention. We got on the road early to arrive at the Remand Home and work through several interviews.

The boy's remand building

On my team’s first interview, we called for the kid and about halfway through the interview we realized that another boy with a completely different case had come instead. The case was simple theft of an old wooden door by a boy who needed money to pay for school. The owner of the door saw him take it, retrieved it immediately, and had him caned. Then, on top of that, the owner had the boy arrested and he’s been waiting in jail for several months. The boy just wants to get back to school. You hear a case like this and you shake your head that it came to this.

Our next two cases were (aggravated defilement) rape of girls until 14 by older boys. In both cases, evidence was incredibly thin, but the boys both seemed believable that they had not committed the crime. In one instance, a feud had broken out between two sides of a family. To seek revenge for the boy of one side who had been arrested for stealing money, the other side accused him of defiling their younger daughter. It’s hard to say what really happened and I will be digging into the case file momentarily.

In the final case of defilement, the boy indicated that he might be a neighbor randomly accused. The girl had apparently not come home and her father beat her until she told him with whom she spent the night. She gave the neighbor boy’s name. We also interviewed the boy’s uncle (whom he lives with) who corroborated the story and said he was with him the entire day and they slept in the same room. The seemed so frustrated with the scenario and said, “I’ll just tell them I did it if it means I can go back to school!” Answers like this give me reason to believe he’s telling the truth.

These are just a sampling of the cases with which we’re dealing. Other cases range from death by poisoned insects to witch craft. We run the gamut here.

If you know Michael and Karen Mudgett from Malibu Presbyterian Church, I think they’re enjoying their time. Michael is definitely on top of things during the interviews. We’re not on the same team, but occasionally I hear him switch hats from lawyer to pastor and bark out something like, “Okay young man, now you tell me how you’re going to change your behavior around women.”

For those who know Carol Chase, she’s definitely in her element here. The fact patterns we get are better than law exam questions with all sorts of complex procedure and evidentiary problems. It’s criminal law professor’s dream and she’s loving try to solve these complex cases. “I want to come back here and do this again!” she blurted out after we finished today’s round of interviews.

Tomorrow is the final push—we need to get everything wrapped up and filed away. It will be a busy morning.


Back in Uganda: The Masindi Project 2 is Beginning

I am back in Uganda this week for another installment of the Masindi Project—a juvenile justice initiative Pepperdine conducted in 2010.  On this trip, I’m joined by Pepperdine Law professor Carol Chase and Michael and Karen Mudgett from Malibu Presbyterian Church.  Michael is a lawyer turned pastor.

The long road back to Kampala

So far, things have been very busy.  We arrived in Uganda late Friday night and slept 3 hours at a hotel before departing to head north.  When I bring groups to Uganda, I like to start the trip with a quick safari over the weekend to get us out, active, and over jet lag.

On top of that, Paraa Safari Lodge is one of my favorite places in the world.  I looks like the kind of lodge that Disney would design, except that it is a real safari lodge!  I also love it’s celebration of African explorers—the walls are covered in paints of Livingstone, Speke, and the great Nile explorers.

The night we arrived at the lodge, we did the Nile cruise.  Again, much like Disney’s jungle boat ride, except that it’s all real.  Along the river banks you see cape buffalo, warthogs, elephants, hippos, and crocodiles.  It’s calm and relaxing.

Early, early the next morning, we arose for the game drive safari—you head out before sunrise.  I had one mission this time: see lions.  They had eluded me the past two visits.  We drove out quickly, blowing past the elephants and giraffes to try to find the lions early.  Thankfully, we were not disappointed.   A pride was spotted and we tracked them for a while.  We saw 4 or 5 lions up close—within 10 feet at one point.

After the safari, it was back to Masindi—a long 2.5 hour bumpy ride on dirt roads.  We pulled into town about 3 p.m. and checked into the Masindi Hotel, another one of my favorite hotels in Uganda.  It claims to be Uganda’s oldest hotel (built in 1923) and lays claim to being frequented by Ernest Hemingway during his trips to Africa.  I think they even claim he recuperated here after he crashed in an airplane.

We were also joined by all of the Pepperdine Law students and Professor Gash on Sunday night at the Masindi Hotel.  We briefed the team on what to expect the next few days as start the Masindi Project.  By evening, the local legal aid lawyer, Susan, and probation officer, William, arrived at our hotel and brought a few of the available case files.

The boys' remand building

My team will have about 7 or 8 cases.  So far, we have two files.  Both involve teenage boys accused of rape and imprisoned at this jail.  One of the victims was 3 years old, the other was 12.  The file also always thin, so our job is to figure out what happened in build the case for justice to be done.

For the most part, the kids here have been held for 1-2 years, far over the 6 month maximum that you can hold a child under Ugandan law.  A few have even crossed the 2 year mark, which means they arrived soon after I left on the first Masindi Project trip.

We head out to the jail in just a few short hours.  I will keep you posted on how this week transpires.


Tired of Buying Useless Souvenirs? How I Started Collecting Art.

On a trip to Costa Rica a few years ago, I recall walking through souvenir shops the day before I left.  I didn’t know what to buy.  There was a lot of choose from.  I wanted to bring something home.  But what?  What would I actually put on my shelf?  What wouldn’t end up in a box in the closet??  I walked around for an hour before I settled on a couple small items.  But what was really causing my indecision?  There was no purpose behind my search.

A year later, on a trip to Bangladesh, I met a guy about my age who told me that everywhere he went, he bought a decorative box.  He didn’t know why, he was just collecting something and he collected a small box from every country.  Something about that idea made sense–he wasn’t buying random items, but collecting a theme that had meaning to him.


Artist at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.

My next major trip after that was to Haiti in 2008.  I had read that Haitian art was particularly notable.  Indeed, they had a large art district near the center square in Port-Au-Prince.  Out in front of my hotel (Hotel Montana, which completely collapsed in the earthquake) there was a stand with a couple art dealers.  I walked out one day and negotiated for the piece: $20.  Naturally, it went up on my wall at home immediately.  And I loved it.  It was a reminded me of the places I visited, I had met the artist, and it was a great talking point when people came to visit.

On ever subsequent trip, I try to buy art.  My goal is to one-day have a house full of unique art from around the world that reminds me of the places I’ve been and people I’ve met.  I never pay more than $20 for a piece and I buy direct from artists–usually in markets.  Often, the basic frame that the piece later goes into costs 3-4 times more than the art itself.  This goal is actually coming to fruition rather quickly–we already have more art than wall space.

I highly recommend this practice of collecting something–if not art, then boxes or handbags or masks or carvings.  Collecting something provides purpose rather than a compulsion to buy a souvenir.  The following is a glimpse into my art collection through my five favorite pieces. Continue Reading →


Five Reasons Why You Should Visit Rwanda

Last week, we hosted a delegation from the Ministry of Justice in Rwanda at Pepperdine.  It was a wonderful week with a wonderful group of people.  It reminded me how much I love the and why.  In light of that trip, I wanted to give you my FIVE reasons why I love Rwanda and why it should be the next country on your list to visit.

The Essence of Rwanda

1. There’s magic in the air.  Rwanda just has a magical aura to it that you need to experience.  It’s the “land of a thousand hills” and it lives up to its name–with mountains beyond mountains.  And, through the mountains floats Rwanda’s famed mist.  The country has a special spirit to it.  I feel at ease in Rwanda–it’s clean, safe, and friendly. Continue Reading →


My Take on President Obama’s Decision to Send Troops to Africa

If you caught the news last Friday afternoon, you might have noticed that President Obama decided to send 100 American troops to Africa to lend support in the fight against the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army).  A few people have asked me what this means and whether its a good thing.  In short, I believe it was a good decision and it could help bring an end to one of Africa’s bloodiest ongoing conflicts.

Boy on a bike

First, let me share that I’m not generally in favor of the U.S. taking on more global conflicts.  That being said, I believe we do have a duty that extends beyond our borders, particularly when we have tools and resources that can be helpful.  The analysis is a balancing act–a decision I’m glad I do not have to make Continue Reading →


“Remand”: A Short Film on Jail for Kids in Africa (Finished and in HD)

After some small changes and post-production improvements, "Remand" is now a finished film!  The documentary is short, only 6 minutes.

At Pepperdine, we've been assisting the juvenile justice system in Uganda by going into children's prisions to prepare their cases for trial.  Unfortunatly, kids easily slip through the cracks and some wait as long as 2 years without receiving a trial for a crime they are merely (and often wrongly) accused.

The film is in HD, so please watch FULL SCREEN by clicking the little "X" betwen "HD" and "Vimeo" on the menu at the bottom of the clip window.

Remand: Jail for Kids (HD) from Jay Milbrandt on Vimeo.

On a technical note, I shot this film on a Canon 7D with L-Series lenses.


What Are You Too Afraid To Do?

Coming into our final set of rapids, a class 4/5 called “Nile Special,” we rolled over the first large wave, then found our raft facing a towering giant wall of water.  This huge wave makes Nile Special one of the most famous rapids on the Nile.  Suddenly, we were engulfed.  I recall the wave crashing over me, then looking down to see Eric below me as I started falling through space.  I was suddenly under water and could feel the raft had fallen on top of me.  Surfing instinct kicked in and I relaxed to just let the water take me. Next thing I knew, I was floating in the middle of the rapids about 10 feet from the raft.  The next wave, another giant, stood up right in front me.  I leaned in started swimming as the water crashed over me.  “Woohoo!” I shouted as I popped up.  A safety kayaker appeared feet from me and I gave him the thumbs and flagged him off so that I could swim the rest of the rapids.  It was the ride of lifetime and I wanted to do it again in the worst way.






When we finally caught up with our raft after this rapid (I’m the on in white long sleeves), one of our rafting compatriots said she thought she was going to die.  She climbed abroad the raft as quickly as possible.  My experience couldn’t have been any more different.  I thought it was amazing.  I didn’t feel in danger at all.

I’ll admit, though, it wasn’t like earlier—I was apprehensive.  I read some stories about rafting the Nile where, like my raft-mate, the writers said they “almost died.”  I’d been whitewater rafting before, but never Class 5, and I’d never fallen out in a raging river.  The simple truth was, I didn’t understand it.  I didn’t know what to expect nor how to handle swimming in rapids.

Yet, whitewater rafting on the Nile has been on my life to do list for a few years.  I’ve wanted to do 4 years ago when I first visited Uganda and each year since, it still hasn’t happened.  I was determined this year (especially since Uganda is building dams reducing and even eliminating the rapids).

Even in the morning before rafting, I wondered whether I should go.  It would have been easy to talk myself out of it: “Oh, I should stay and catch up on email” or “I’ll go next time when I have a bigger group.”

By the end of the day, I couldn’t have been happier.  It was one of the best adventure days I had in the longtime.  I’d even go so far as to say that I would have like a little MORE danger (I didn’t feel in any real risk at any point).

The simple truth is this: We fear what we don’t understand.  And, with whitewater rafting, I didn’t understand it.

It reminded me of the first time I went rock climbing outdoors.  I was SO afraid.  We actually started by rappelling and I still vividly remember my legs shaking as stepped back over the ledge.  I didn’t want to do it, but everyone else was.  I even had two backup belayers.  Now, I’ve climbed all over the world and guide rock climbing.  I love being up high on the rock.  What changed?  I understand climbing.  I know that the ropes are secure and that the rock won’t give out and that the belayer can easily hold me even if I fall.  I no longer fear it because I don’t understand it.

Its this fear of what we don’t understand that holds us back from doing so many of the things that are on our list (or would be on our list).  I think, like my drift through the rapids on the Nile, in many cases we need to relax and trust the river.  Then, when we do accomplish it, we often have one of the best days ever.

The same company that operates the rafting also operates bungee jumping.  Bungee jumping is not on my list, but it’s one that I don’t understand.  As a rock climber, heights don’t bother me, but the concept of actively throwing myself off of something tall is diametrically opposed to everything I’ve been trained to do.  Thankfully, I didn’t have the opportunity to face the question of whether my lack of understanding would stop me from jumping (hmm… bungee jumping in Africa…) 

What do you want to accomplish but don’t understand?


Where the Streets Have No Name

Yesterday morning, I went running on the streets of Kigali.  As I ran along one of the main thoroughfares, I couldn't help but think about the horrific acts that took place on those streets in 1994.  Countless, lives were taken where I was now running.  I wondered who they were, what they were named, and what led their killers to justify the madness. 

Then, today, I visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial—a powerful museum, archive, and reminder of the appalling genocide that pitted neighbor against neighbor.  This, however, was not my first time to the memorial.  On my previous, I walked through the memorial practically alone.  I recall being impressed by the message and facility.

Today’s visit was different.  We were visiting during the 100 Days of Mourning, where Rwanda remembers those lost during the days the genocide took place.  The memorial was crowed with students in uniform—prsumably high school students—beginning to enter the exhibit.

As Dr. Tippens and I began the walking audio tour, shrieks and wails started rising up from within the memorial.  As we walked the grounds, the Rwandan students lay in the grass, sobbing and screaming.  As more poured out of the memorial, staff ran to retrieve foam mattresses upon which many kids collapsed. 

The power of the memorial was amplified by the outpour of emotion.  I’ve visited many memorials, including concentration camps in Germany.  Yet, none made me feel sick or brought me close to tears.  Through moving, these memorials seemed at a distance, as if they happened in some detached past.  Then, today, as I walked along the mass graves and into the flower gardens, I passed a young Rwandan woman walking the other direction.  Only inches away from her, I saw her face as she broke down and collapsed in the grass.  A companion tried to comfort her and place her on a mattress as she wailed the kind of wailing that could only be made by someone who suffered a deep, traumatic wound. 

I could barely stand now myself and I found a nearby bench where I sat down to fight off tears.  The screams and cries of dozens of young Rwandans resounded through the memorial.  This was not history.  This was real.  This was still alive.

Dr. Tippens put it best when he told me that he came to memorial as a tourist, but discovered it to be no tourist stop.  Rather, we entered a place of mourning.

In the garden holding the mass grave of over ¼ million people, the memorial started a “wall of names” with the intent of recognizing all of those who lost lives in the genocide.  Yet, the list is small.  Most of the victims are unidentified and, in many cases, identification may be impossible.  It brought me back to the day before as I ran the streets where the killings took place.  One might never know what happened on what now seem like such peaceful boulevards.  It’s as if the streets have no name.  Yet, Rwanda’s story is not history and even though who remain nameless are still embodied in the pain of this young nation.  I shall never forget the anguish I witnessed today.


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