I Went on an Incredible Safari Trip — but It Was the Last 30 Minutes in Uganda's Airport That Changed My Life
A travel writer finally meets the Ugandan teen she's watched grow up from afar.
In early March, the border between Rwanda and Uganda was quiet. I came to East Africa as a guest of Volcanoes Safaris, to learn more about its local guest lodges and Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust, which has become a model for sustainable tourism by promoting great ape conservation while engaging local communities with self-sustaining projects to enrich their livelihoods.
I had traveled for three days in Rwanda experiencing firsthand the positive impact conscious travel can have on developing communities, including funding the purchase of individual tanks for clean water; sheep to breed, eat and sell; and solar panels to bring energy into these small communities. Now we were moving into Uganda to meet with the descendants of the first people of the area, the Batwa conservation refugees, and understand how VSPT has worked to retain their culture and traditions through the Batwa Resettlement Project.
As directed, we approached the Ugandan border on foot while our driver and car made a separate entrance. At the time, COVID-19 was just approaching pandemic proportions and it had not officially made its way into East Africa. We processed through four stations — first a stop to sanitize shoes and hands with a bleach solution and undergo a fever check; then through customs — first exiting Rwanda and then entering Uganda. Finally, we registered with the police, and when I was done, I took my first steps into the Pearl of Africa.
Our team hopped in the Land Rover and we began our journey north towards Mount Gahinga. As we drove, I looked at the children who ran to the edge of the road along the route, and all I could think about was Saifi.
The first time I laid eyes on Saifi, he was captured in a picture standing by the side of the road. He looked fiercely into the camera. The image, sent by a friend, came with a message. She explained the child’s father was dying of HIV/AIDS, and his mother had already passed from complications of the virus. Would we sponsor this 12-year-old boy so he could be taken into an orphanage, cared for and educated? It took us only moments to agree.
Two weeks before I left the United States, as soon as I learned I was traveling to Uganda, I reached out to his school’s American headquarters and requested a meeting with him.
I respected their answer that, no, it would be too much of a security risk. Yet, being there in Uganda, I imagined Saifi in every child’s face — running towards us to wave, accept a lollipop, a pencil or a matchbox car. In every pair of bright, curious eyes, I saw him. I knew I had to try again.
I sent a final “Hail Mary” request through Facebook to the founder of the organization who was based in Kampala. “Please,” I begged him. “Can you make an exception to the rule?”
Several days passed.
I never heard back.
On the final day of our travels we boarded a turbo-prop bush plane at Kasese and took off from a grass airstrip flying over the Kibale Forest, crater lakes formed by ancient volcano explosions and mud-brick homes roofed with tin, reflecting sunlight along the landscape.
As we approached Entebbe, I looked out the window, searching for something I knew I’d never find. Even if we had flown over Saifi’s campus, I could never have recognized it, or him from a mile above ground, and yet I searched and searched for something nothing short of a miracle. By the time we landed, I had given up hope. I settled into the fact that while the trip to East Africa has been transformative, a piece of my heart had been left behind with Saifi.
As I waited for my flight from Kampala to Nairobi, my colleagues and I pooled our last Ugandan shillings and ordered a few Nile Special lagers to share. I checked my phone. It was still morning in the States, but a request in Facebook Messenger popped up. It was a name I didn’t recognize, so I ignored it.
Later that afternoon we made our way through customs and settled in for what would be an hour wait before boarding. I checked my phone again and another Ugandan name came up in Messenger. I fumbled through my mind for my Facebook password and opened the message.
“Oh my god!” I shouted. The two women I was traveling with looked up, worried something had happened at home.
“Saifi,” I said, “He’s here!”
My legs started moving before I had finished telling them what was happening. That first message, the one in the bar at the airport, while I was drinking the Nile? That had been Saifi’s teacher and escort to the airport. He had been waiting for me for hours.
I was shaking, my body filled with adrenaline. My flight was scheduled to leave in less than an hour. I ran to customs and tried to explain my situation. The custom’s official asked me for my fingerprints, took my passport and stamped it again.
“No, please,” I said, “I don’t want to leave the country, I want to come back in.” He was confused but agreed, and after leaving him with my passport, I ran towards the door.
There I came up against a woman working at the metal detector. When I told her what was happening, she said there was no way I could leave the airport now that I’d already gone through customs (twice). I pleaded with her to let me go, and after a few tense minutes of debate, she waived me through. I ran out to the street in front of the airport yelling for a way towards arrivals where Saifi was waiting. A kind man directed me to a set of stairs. It was nearly dark, but when I turned the corner it took less than a second for me to recognize him. There was Saifi, standing in the middle of a road again, waiting.
I called out his name and my legs moved down the stairs without willing them. I felt weak seeing his face, this boy I had watched grow up before my eyes, now in front of me, in the flesh. I must have blown in like a tempest, sweating and wild haired, yelling his name. But when I reached him, I calmly asked him if I could hug him and he said yes.
Seven years and 9,000 miles had been nothing to stop the bond from forming. I cried into his shoulder. Now 18, he had grown taller than me, but his smile and eyes were the same as they were when he was a boy.
I rambled — apologizing for not getting to him sooner, for not having any type of gift for him, and marveling at the sight of him. He told me of his plans to become a doctor, and how he wakes at 5 a.m. every morning to study on his own before school.
Thirty minutes felt like five, and soon I received a text from my colleagues that the plane to Kenya was boarding. As much as it hurt, I had to go. Before I left, I asked if he had any other questions for me and he said, “Just, when will you come back?”
I couldn’t answer that question then, and today, only a couple of weeks later, amidst a world in chaos, I don’t know when it will happen. Days after I arrived home, Uganda restricted entry to U.S. travelers while they try and protect their people and infrastructure from this illness. Then, Saifi and thousands of the other students at his orphanage were dispersed to foster homes in attempt to keep them safe. At this moment, I don’t know where he is.
I left Saifi in that gravel lot with the promise that I would return, that I would see him again. I intend to honor that promise — one day.