Last week will remain the be-all and end-all of a good surprise. A Uganda Airlines plane flight No UR 202 took to the skies carrying within its fold, 12 special people – 9 women and 2 men, and one child- 95% of whom only learnt about their trip, literally just hours to that flight. In what will go down for them as the surprise of a life time, these senior citizens- most of them of advanced age, were invited by their people for ‘just a visit to Kampala’. The rest is history. I had the opportunity to be a front-seat witness to the moment these people found out they had been offered a surprise- to fly out of the country. I hope I can even manage to paint for you the picture of what I saw during this surprise trip.
How did all this start? Last year, in September, I organized a surprise trip for an old man- Wilson Dhabangi- who showed me unconditional love when I was young. He used to ride a bicycle for 30kms to visit me at school- every Sunday, for three years. When I organized a surprise trip for him to Nairobi and wrote about it, many people connected with the story and got reminded of the ‘Dhabangis’ of their lives. Consequently, some reached out to me asking if I could help them organize a similar surprise for their heroes.
This year, with a team of friends, I started working on an elaborate plan to organize a similar trip for other ‘Dhabangis’. I approached Uganda airlines about it and the very welcoming Marketing team at the airlines gladly accepted my request and offered a discount on the flight cost for these senior citizens. December being a high season, tickets are quite costly. However, the airline was kind enough and offered a discount. People didn’t have to break the bank to surprise their loves ones.
Once I had the green light from the airline, I informed the people that had expressed interest. These people skillfully weaved their hooks and soon, trapped their game. The idea was to maintain the trip as a surprise to the people they wanted to sponsor. Some wanted to surprise their mothers, uncles, nannies, sisters, house helps…among others. There is one who wanted to surprise a man who has worked as a herdsman for over 35 years in their home. Their stories were incredibly inspiring. You listened to one story and just remained wowed. You listened to another jaw-dropping story about the sacrifices someone made for them and you froze. It was a buffet of stories of unconditional love, untold sacrifice and enduring resilience.
We started getting our ‘prey’ to acquire the necessary travel documents without them noticing. These needed a COVID vaccination certificate, yellow fever card and a passport or National ID. Luckily, they did not require a passport to gain entry to Kenya where were planning to take them. Over the next couple of weeks, each sponsor tried to get their person to acquire those documents. The passport would flag certain signals. Some had never completed their COVID vaccination and as such they had to do a PCR before travel. Some feared to take the Yellow fever vaccination. Thankfully, for many, they would be excused due to their advanced age.
In time, everything was set. The 9 women and 2 men, were tricked into coming to Kampala for a visit. As you may know, most village residents have plenty of work to do in their Gardens, social events like funeral of so and so…or visiting a sick relative. There is always something occupying them. So…some tried to bargain with their sponsors to be allowed to come to Kampala after the proposed dates but their sponsors insisted- politely, that they should come that particular week.
We secured the air tickets, got those who had not completed vaccination to get their PCR done, and ticked all the boxes. The flight to Nairobi was set for 6am. This meant that they would have to roughly check in by 4am. Some people preferred to take their people to the airport to see them off, while some asked me to pick them from different parts of Kampala.
Up until this point, just hours to the flight, some people had not yet told their person what is going to happen. They had only tipped them that they were ‘going somewhere to relax’. Flying was the furthest thought on our ‘prey’s’ minds.
That night, I moved up and about, ensuring everyone is ready and has their papers in order. My phone was buzzing on end. At some point it blacked out yet I was still connecting and picking some of them. However, I managed to get everyone to the airport through a heavy down pour, and the surprise started to unfold.
Slowly, we started to inform them that were heading for Nairobi. The shock in their faces was of world cup proportions. One particular woman first refused. She said she can not accept to go out of the country alone- without her people. How was she to trust me? She also thought I was lying to her. Her people re-assured her and confirmed to her that I was telling her the truth- and that she would be just fine. She begrudging accepted and kept her eyes on me.
The heavy down pour had stolen a lot of time from us. We scrambled through the security gates and headed for the Uganda Airlines check-in counter. Since many of the travelers in the group could not read or write, I had their papers and did the explaining to get them cleared. The Uganda airlines staff were very understanding and cleared us without delay.
The women, and men, were still in shock. Every step we took, at this point, felt like a step into the unknown. They were in a kind of a place and time where they simply looked on and just trusted that all was well, and that what was happening was real. At the counter, they asked those who had big bags to check them in. At one point, when one of the women saw her bag sliding away on the conveyor belt, she asked the staff why her bag had been taken away from her and how she is supposed to get it. They assured her that she will see it while in Nairobi. She quickly came to me to confirm if this was true and if the bag would be safe. I assured her all was well.
Once everyone was cleared, they handed each of them their boarding pass and directed us to head to the immigration counter. There, the officers, cleared us without incident. They asked me where were going, made the system registrations and handed each of them their interstate pass- for those who had no passport. As we passed through the different security gates, you could see the shock, the tint of uncertainty, but also a shade of trust in their eyes. Some could barely hide their excitement. Some were literally frozen and some, emotionless. You could hardly read how they were processing the experience. Things seemed to be unfolding at supersonic speed.
I remember one particular mother who told me, ‘Naye muwala wange alimbye nyo. Yanimba nti ngenda kumukyalila e’kampala, kumbe ngenda kulinya nyonyi! Kati laba bwenyambadde. Naaze nengoye nyaa zooka.’ (…paraphrasing…but my daughter could have done better. She lied to me that I was only coming for a visit to Kampala. I didn’t know I was coming to fly. I only carried four pieces of cloth). We laughed and assured her, all was well and that she is smart enough.
Another woman saw a man wearing a short and asked, ‘Kati oyo banamukiriza okulinya enyonyi nga ayambadde empale eyo?’ (Will they allow that young man to board the plane when he is dressed in shorts?). I enjoyed listening to the so many questions they raised as we moved through the corridors to the boarding gate. The sight of how casual some people looked, in a place was hitherto seen as ‘serious’ and ‘official’ shocked them to the born marrow.
We were among the last people to check-in and as such, we arrived at the boarding gates when they are already open, saving us the burden of sitting and waiting. We presented our documents and were let through. I specifically spent more time with one of the mothers- a one Nangobi Beatrice, who had a problem with one of her legs and was in a wheel chair. She had a walking stick for support.
We walked them down the stairs straight to the waiting bus. Most of the passengers were already in the bus. Here, my already overwhelmed group, started catching sight of the swam of airplanes that had parked across the tarmac. I kept my eyes on each person, to get an impression of how they were processing the experience. I think, for safety, they all kept their eyes on me. I was the one in charge of them. They always watched my steps before they made theirs. Even when everyone was moving in a certain direction, they always waited for my instruction or observed what I was doing, before making their own steps.
The bus, full of all tribe of people, slowly drove towards a mid-sized Uganda airlines plane that was parked about 100 meters away. Around it, a bee hive of activity was brewing. The Luggage was being stuffed into its belly. The sky looked clear and the sun was rising.
These people were now in my hands. I had to keep a 360-degrees eye at all times, to ensure that none leaves a radius of 3 meters away from me. At all times, I needed to see each of them. We queued and got our turn to board. At this point, the volume of adrenaline ripping through the veins of the women and men was shooting through the roof. It was getting real.
I looked at each of them. You could see they were absorbed by wonder. For the first time, for many of them, they were close to something they had only always observed from 30,000ft up in the sky. Now, it was there- close to them. They were not just seeing it; they were going to board it. Every step towards the steps felt special. That feeling, was hard to describe. Nothing prepares you for it.
One woman said, ‘So, this is how this thing looks? Shall we all fit in?’ I said, ‘Yes we shall fit and probably even have some more space left for others. One by one, they boarded.
The very friendly crew guided each of them where to sit. I was among the last to board- just to be sure everyone of my people was in. I shuffled through to check on everyone and ensure they were fine and still had their papers intact.
Soon, the crew went through the rituals they perform before take-off. I explained to the two elderly women I had sat next to what the crew had been explaining. Perhaps the information was too much to take in, and yet more was being presented. They nodded in the affirmative but wondered why the briefing had been given. ‘Is there a problem? Do they expect us to fall in water or something?’ one of the women asked, with a curved eye brow- full of anxiety. I explained to them that it is routine and a requirement for the crew to explain to the passengers what to do in case of an emergency but that everything would be fine. They nodded their heads in approval- but not without fear.
The plane started taxing away headed for the runway. Nangobi asked, ‘Buti obwo eisimbwire?’ (Has it started? – in the sense of flying). I said ‘It first rides on the ground, finds a run-way where it can gather speed before it lifts off.’ She looked at me with an approving eye- to show she had understood.
At this point, most of them had their eyes glued to the window next to their seats, carefully observing as we taxed away from other planes. If you looked around their chest, you could see that some had their hearts beating faster while others were calm. I assured them that as it takes off, they may experience a little discomfort- as though the plane is stalling…or failing…and some little pain piercing in their ears…but everything would be finally be okay, in a few.
In no time, the plane had reached the run way, aligned and locked its nose with the middle segment of the run way. Nothing prepares anyone for this moment. You could see everyone’s eyes were somehow out of their socket- bulging out to observe how the take-off happens.
The engines started to roar. Louder and louder, they got. You could feel as though it was pumping pressure into itself before finally using that pressure to release itself. Boom!!! within seconds, the plane gathered speed and boom!!! It lifted off and blasted into the sky. I looked at the women. Their hands held firm the arm rest. Some feared to look through the window. Some looked on with amazement. It felt like a movie.
With time, what were buildings turned into a vast expanse of small colors and map-like images akin to a painting. Now, the world had transformed. It looked different. For the first time, they were at an altitude they had never been before. They eyes were seeing images they had never set sights on. The dimension had changed. Their minds had changed, their history, with it. They were aboard a plane, for the first time, flying to another country- for the first time. Everything, at this point, was a first.
The plane continued to cut through the clouds, going up- occasionally shaking as it broke through the smoke of white clouds. Nobody talked. Every one of them was silent. I looked on- pitifully, feeling sorry for the discomfort they were feeling during this small stretch of the climb. I assured them that soon, the plane would stabilize. None spoke back. Their silence was loud but and the tension unmistaken. The two women who were near me kept their eyes on me – as though to look for assurance that all will be well. I locked eyes with them- furnishing them an abundance of assurance that we shall be do just fine. At that point, everyone must have been calling their gods for safety. It seemed abnormal that we were up there, floating on nothing.
After a thrilling 15 minutes of silence but only eyes talking, calm slowly returned. The plane stabilized and Nangobi uttered the first word. ‘Buti tuli waigulu wabireri?’ (Are we now above the clouds?). I say partly yes. Looking out of her window, she could see a snow-white blanket of clouds with very beautiful overlapping patterns.
The crew started serving food. The plane seemed not to be moving though- according to the two women I sat next to. To them, everything seemed static. They seemed to observe no movement. One of them asked if we had by-passed Jinja, I told her that we were already past Busia and were already in Kenyan airspace. Her mouth dropped. She could not believe that in such a short time, we were already out of Uganda.
The crew carried on with serving. One of the women told me she would not eat because she did not have money to pay and also doesn’t understand what they were serving. I assured her that she is entitled to eat the food since it had already been paid for. I also tried to demystify the menu to calm her fears. She had said her stomach is very picky. She feared that if she developed a running stomach, she would have no where to go. I told her in case she needed to ease herself, the crew would direct her to the toilet. ‘Muno muberamu toilet? (Is there a toilet on a plane?) she asked. I answered her.
I shared with the crew that some of people I was travelling with were first time travelers and as such they need to keep asking them if they need any help and to make them feel comfortable. They indeed reached out and provided very friendly service.
In the minutes that followed, I answered a thousand questions. The technology puzzled them. The speed baffled them. The experience was unlike any other. As they ate, they started sharing how they felt as the plane took off. One of them said she thought the plane was falling. Soon, the pilot informed us that we were due for landing. When I informed the women that were about to land, they would not process how this was possible. They were still eating. We had literally just taken off from Entebbe. Now, we were landing! It puzzled them. Time seemed to have folded- dilated in some way.
Looking through the window, the women cautiously looked on as the plane touched down- smoothly, at exactly 7am at Jomo Kenyatta international Airport. The sun had just come out. A blanket of fog still covered the air. Nairobi felt cooler than Kampala.
As the plane came to a halt, I briefed them on what was required by immigration. We headed out and took to migration for clearance. The officers there were also very friendly and didn’t give us any hard time. We then went to the luggage collection point and found the bags we had checked in rotating on the belt. This was something that surprised some of the women. How did the bags get here- this fast? We picked the bags and headed out where we found our guide Joshua- a taxi driver and one of the best Kenyans I ever met and would always recommend, waiting for us. In a convoy of three cars, we made our way to hotel. As the cars snaked through, I could see the women looking, with admiration, at the wide roads that have changed the face of Nairobi.
We arrived at the Hotel around 8:30am and had some rest. Later in the day, we made a city tour before heading for a nyama choma experience. During this dinner, I read for the women, special messages that had been written for them by the people who sponsored them. The messages were very deep and emotive. Some of the mothers cried as they heard words of appreciation from their daughters and sons. The moment was very emotional for all of us. I read one message- people sobbed. I read another and more broke down. In each message, every woman saw herself and her children and the hard times they had been through. In the tears of the other, other women found their own tears. Memories returned, tears joined and the moments became wet.
After a very beautiful evening, we retired to the apartment. The following day, we made another incursion into the city to see a bit more. We were able to see some animals in the Nairobi national park as we sped by its western side, and headed for the Giraffe center. There, the group had a moment to see, up close, how these tall animals-giraffes, look like. The women and men were given pellets to feed the giraffes. That was another interesting experience.
We then had a bit of more city touring including visiting some crafts shops. Since we were going to leave at night, we retired early after another Kenyan culinary experience that gave us a feel of Kenyan food. On return, people slept.
Later in the night as we prepared to leave the Hotel to head to the airport, I had some trouble paying as my Visa card refused to approve the payment. However, a very kind friend called Alfred of Amie cabs, an interesting taxi business operating in Kampala, helped me sort the problem and we left for the airport. That was such a big relief. We had enjoyed a beautiful experience with people who bonded and supported one another. The old lady that was limping received support from everyone, all through.
We headed to the airport, cleared through and boarded the plane. Here, Uganda Airlines gave us a big surprise. One of the old women we had traveled with received a special surprise. Her name is Nangobi Beatrice. She is the be-all and end-all of inspiration. She was born in Luuka in 1950. She struggled to raise her 8 children after losing her husband at a very early age. She used to sell ‘malwa’ or local brew to earn a living. She had taken on the role of father and mother at an early age. Like any widow who is thrown in the deep end of things, Nangobi struggled and went through some of the most painful experiences to see her children succeed. The highlight of her story, her daughter says, is that when she (daughter) was finally admitted to University, she brought her admission letter to her mother in the village. Her mother looked at the letter, went into the house and checked her saving box. She had been saving 100shs, 200shs, and other small denominations. She gathered them all and returned to her daughter with money totaling to 6000shs (less than 2 dollars) and said, ‘My daughter, this is the only money I have.’ The daughter was overcome with emotion. That is how deep and far people have come.
Uganda airlines, as a way of appreciating her for spirit of her resilience and determination, upgraded her to business class. They also made mention of the names of all the women and men in the group and thanked them for their sacrifices for the people they helped years ago. It felt very special for them. At this point, I went to Nangobi to explain to her why she had been put in business class and what that meant. She got so emotional. She laughed. She sobbed. Looking at her face, you could see the sacrifices, the endurance, the knocks she has got in life, the kicks and buts. Her face was a badge of honour…of resilience and of the endearing spirit of women- mothers.
I looked on with pride as these people enjoyed the fruits of their sacrifices. The return flight was more enjoyable because they had got some experience, were more confident and they were returning to their homeland. They got to talk a little more, took more pictures and had time with the crew. When we landed at Entebbe, we had a photo session with the crew. One of the women looked at the Pilots and said, ‘Kale baana bato naye laba omulimo gwebakola’ (They [pilots] are so young but look at the kind of job they do!). With hearts full of pride and gratitude, these men and women walked away, looking at the plane with contentment, and thanking life for looking back at them and remembering to smile at them- one more time. We cleared through immigration and exited.
As we reached the arrival area, we were welcomed with wild cheers and excitement from the relatives. Some people carried flowers while others carried smiles and big hugs. I have been through this point so many times that I have not felt the joy of being welcomed in a long time. I looked on with joy as these men and women were welcome by their loved ones. I was glad we had gone and returned safe.
As we parted ways and I handed them back to their people, I felt a sense of completion of task…but my not without a lesson. On this trip, there had been 9 women and only two men. Why? As a man, it made me think a lot. Maybe I need to be more present for my children…and not just provide. Presence, I figured out, is the most important gift anyone can give a child. These women were present and the children never forgot that. It did not matter if they lacked money or not, but they were there.
And more lesson- Life goes…and it can seem to go past you but I have learnt through this surprise that sometimes, and probably most times, life will look back at you and smile for the good you have done for others. Keep doing good. It will return to you at some point. Life looks back- and smiles back.
Thank you, Uganda Airlines, and thank you everyone that trusted me with their person and their money.
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