Bunyonyi literally means ‘place of many little birds’, and everyone who has ever visited this lake in the southwest of Uganda, knows that that is not an exaggeration. From kingfishers who dive with their beaks straight down in the water, to the hamerkops waiting patiently on the riverbanks, to the gracious national pride of Uganda, the crested crane. The latter — also known as the grey crowned cranes — are every bit as majestic as their name suggests, with their crown of stiff golden feathers, grey bodies resting on long, thin legs, white wings with golden-brown feathers, light blue eyes and bright red gular sacs under their chins.
These birds have been fascinating me ever since I arrived in Uganda. Did you know that crested cranes are monogamous? Once they have found their mate, they are likely to spend the rest of their lives together. You can never see just one crested crane, they are always moving in pairs (don’t miss an adorable video of how they fall in love on the National Geographic website — it was shot in Rwanda!). To conquer their prospective partners’ hearts, the lovebirds perform a dance. They start bobbing their heads up and down, flutter their 2-meters-wide wings and jump around their lovers. While a breeding dance is not uncommon for birds, crested cranes actually perform dances throughout the whole year, and even young ones are spotted joining the dance, meaning that these birds actually like dancing!
Sadly, the creatures are listed as endangered, with humans being their main enemies. To local farmers they are often seen as a pest, because they feed on seeds they often end up grazing on farmlands where they can do a lot of damage to the farmer’s livelihood.
Since arriving at beautiful Lake Bunyonyi where these crested cranes are plentiful, I have been trying to take a good picture of one of them, but I kept failing. Birds in general are really hard to photograph, it felt like every time I pressed the button, the crane just decided to flutter away or put their heads between their feathers. I have been able to take pictures of elephants, hippos and even a tree lion, but birds seemed to be collectively protesting posing for me.
– People think that cranes are able to bring rain, so rain makers would imagine cranes and imitate their movements in rituals to speed up the arrival of the rainy season.
– Marriages and relationships will reportedly last longer if the partners consume crane feathers and eggs.
– Crushed crane eggs mixed with herbs are offered as a love potion.
– Crane’s feathers, claws and beaks are used in drinks and as decorations for strengthening monogamy and affection, but also as an omen that keeps evil spirits away from children.
– When children encounter a crane, they sing “dance for me, crane, I will brew beer for you when the millet is ripe and we will take it together”. As soon as they stop singing, the crane dances and the children join in, learning dancing from the bird.
– If the crane lands on a family tree or roof and is chased away, especially during the night, this is bad omen; disease or death will befall the head of the family.
– Despite their beauty and elegance, the cranes make a horrible honking sound quite different from the trumpeting of other crane species. However, these honks help with telling time. The first ones begin right at 3am and continue every hour. Children that use this natural alarm clock are never late for school.
box text by Jane Mulungi
The birds of Uganda are not the only ones not working in my favour lately. I have always had a difficult relationship with technology (I still have to call my dad every time I need something printed), but lately my electronic devices have appeared to be extra ornery. I am writing this blog on an old laptop that takes forever to load a page, because I am having issues with my MacBook and there’s no one around to fix it. Power cuts and expensive, quickly diminishing data has not aided the process at all.
I had never realised before what a luxury a properly working and accessible electrical grid actually is. I mean, think about it, nowadays, how much of our lives depends on it? What would a usual day in my life look like back in Belgium: I would plug in my Nespresso machine for a coffee (here it takes me half an hour to get a fire starting with paper and charcoal), I would take my breakfast out of the fridge (here a fridge serves more as extra storage that sometimes when you are lucky offers you cold water), I would take a shower with warm water (here I have to make a fire under the water barrel, and then wait the right amount of time for the water to be heated up but not boil me alive like a lobster), and then I would probably check my email on my laptop, which I could charge whenever the battery is low.
Here, you cannot be so dependent on electricity. It’s like sunshine in Belgium — you’re happy when it’s there, but you don’t expect it to be there all the time. Imagine you have a school deadline, you have been putting in a lot effort for a couple of days, you’re happy with the result and then when time comes to upload it, your computer shuts down because there’s a power cut.
In these kinds of moments, frustrations can run really high. You feel like nothing else can go wrong or you’ll lose it. Yet when it happened to me last week, while I was walking around nervously, thinking what I could do next, I suddenly felt something tickling my ankle and then my lower leg. By the time I realised I had stepped in a colony of red ants, some of them were reaching my knees. I panicked and had to take my pants off in the middle of a restaurant!
On a normal day this is something I could laugh away, but after my electronic miseries, it felt like all the universal forces were working against me and my frustrations erupted. My heart started pounding in my chest, I started breathing more heavily, my bulging eyes searched the screen for solutions. My hands became nervous, repeatedly pressing on the power button, even though I knew nothing was going to happen. I found myself wondering if this is how the farmer must have felt when a beautiful but clumsy bird ended up undoing all his hard work, leaving him feeling powerless in the scheme of bigger things …
At that moment, as if she could feel that I needed her, I got a text from my friend and I ended up calling her. Just when I was about to finish my rant about all the things that had gone wrong and how frustrated I felt, I heard a wavering sound coming from my right, a soft scattering of the wind. I looked up and I saw crested cranes landing elegantly on the grass field just near me.
I held my breath and quietly picked up my camera and took some pictures. I was humbled by the animal’s presence so close to me and I forgot all my troubles in an instant. Ever since, whenever I am getting frustrated by the small hindrances of life, I look up to the sky and search for my aerial companions, reminding myself that patience pays off.