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Published: August 10th 2008
The rain is still coming down in sheets as I bound between the puddles, toward the hut. I cower under the overhang to avoid the cascades coming down from the roof and knock on the door. As the door creaks open, the hut draws in the damp night air, exhaling a cloud of pungent wood fire, through which a young lady smiles and gestures me to enter. There are no lights inside and through the haze I see a fire in the corner to which I am drawn.
Two women hover over it, their facial features alighted in orange and black. I crouch down beside them as one of them opens the lid of the big pot, exposing my chicken; ardorless in a cauldron of bubbling exuberance. She prods it with a fork and as I look up, the two of them beam back at me through the darkness with toothy grins. I cannot help but think of them as a pair of friendly witches cooking up a spell.
We’d proudly ordered the most expensive thing on the menu; a whole chicken at $10, as we were famished. But that was nearly two hours ago. “Half an hour!” one
of them says optimistically, handing me a fork, so I can concur. I too prod away. The meat is so tough the fork barely punctures the surface. “It’s fine now!” I lie with a smile; my hunger overruling any hope that an extra half an hour’s boiling will render it palatable.
Forty five minutes later our meal arrives. Jennifer soon gives up on a piece of old drummer and tucks into the veggies. I soldier on, adamant that this old cock’s life wasn’t cut short in vain…though as I battle through sinew and cartilage, the more certain I am he died of old age.
The following morning the sun spills through the cracks in our cabin and old cock’s brothers begin to crow. I push open the door and look across the valley at Sipi Falls, now basked in sunlight, and freshly engorged by the rains. Aware the weather can change quickly at this time of year, we make our way down to the falls, via a road, populated with a smattering of brashly colored houses, common throughout east Africa these days, as mobile phone companies zealously attempt to brand whole villages with their insignias.
of women appear, as if in ambush, opportunistically demanding money for taking pictures of them or their sponsored abodes. Teenage boys quickly pick up the scent and battle for our custom. They’re offering to lead us down a well-trodden path to a destination that’s clearly visible from where we’re stood. We pick the least pushy to guide us, knowing from experience that attempting to go it alone will simply result in at least two of them tagging along until we either submit or explode.
The falls themselves have a nice Polynesian atmosphere; hitting the spot somewhere between grandiose and romantic, and well worth the trip out there.
That afternoon, there was no room at the lodge - with umpteen overland trucks in attendance - when we arrived in Jinja, leaving us no option but to drag out the tent and camp on the lawn. It’s the Nile that attracts visitors here. Nowadays people come for the whitewater rafting, and Jinja is fast growing into an adrenaline sport Mecca. With Jennifer into her fourth month of pregnancy, this extreme pastime was on the forbidden list. So we’d stopped by for the chance to witness that Holy Grail of travel
exploration; the source of the Nile.
For the price of burger and fries back at the backpackers we ate at a very nice restaurant on the banks of the Nile. And as we enjoyed a sundowner, my mind began to wander through the journey that lay ahead for this unassuming tract of water that flowed beneath. Down to Lake Albert and north through war torn Uganda and Sudan, past Khartoum, where it joins its sister, in preparation for the inhospitable vastness of the Sahara. Afterwards its energy is briefly tamed and harnessed at Aswan, almost as an act of consolidation, before delivering its lifeblood to Egypt, a few weeks from now - and since the dawn of civilization - until it reaches the Mediterranean Sea.
But to believe that this is that very same river, backed by the Nile brewery on the far banks of this dusty little town, is an abstract exercise in faith. When I later read that the ultimate source of the Nile emerges from Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda, I’m filled with a sense of relief; my sense of adventure reignited, as my mind wonders off into the unknown tropical jungles of Central Africa.
The biggest debate in Kampala and possibly, the whole country, is whether to stay at “Backpackers” or “Red Chilies”. A nonsensical debate perhaps, as most people will stay at either one or the other, thus rendering an objective opinion impossible, as ‘Backpackers’ lies about 3km out of town one way, and ‘Chilies’ 4kms the other.
Kampala was a stopover en route to visit Murchison Falls. Conventional wisdom had it that the only way this could be accomplished without breaking the bank was by joining an organised tour. We’d discovered via telephone that ‘Red Chilies’ were booked up for the next six weeks, and ‘Backpackers’ it seemed couldn’t get enough interested parties together. So we decided to start recruiting for our own custom-made version and soon managed to fill our personal tour quota of two fellow passengers in the shape of two Canadians.
On local advice the four of us set off to the bus station just before the apparent departure time. On seeing four Mzungus with backpacks, bus touts rushed towards us and began pulling at our bags and our persons to try get us to join their buses - before they’d even discovered where we were going.
There were two buses scheduled to depart for Masindi that day, and both were empty. Well actually, one did have a passenger, so we cleverly opted for that one, but he turned out to be a tout.
We were then sought out by two bus-park wardens who came to enquire whether we’d like to take any action against the overly zealous touts that had roughed us up on arrival. We declined, assuring them that nothing unruly had occurred, and settled into our wait…
The hours passed slowly as passengers and hawkers boarded, lingered, departed and changed buses... and we got stuck into some serious escapist reading and mp3 relief. But the spell was broken abruptly some four hours into our wait with Jennifer discovering that her daypack, which had been in the overhead storage, was missing. With the color fast draining from her face I began tossing luggage about in a frantic and futile attempt to locate it. The realization quickly hit home, we’d been robbed!
I shot to the front of the bus to inform anyone who’d listen. Then I exited in search of the bus wardens but was directed up some steps towards the cop
shop, overlooking the bus station. I was greeted by a woman PC who was hunched over her desk, asleep. I pushed further into the station and located a policeman, but just then, a delivery boy arrived with lunch for everybody.
The woman PC chose this moment to awaken from her slumber, and seeing that I was now behind some boiled potatoes and meat sauce on their priority of needs, I decided to slap a little hype on the story, telling anyone who’d listen that the bag contained over $3,000 in cash. This managed to arouse two officers, who gulped down their meals and followed me to the bus.
They made a cursory investigation, questioning the driver and the passengers occupying the seats behind us, but nobody had seen anything untoward. Together we surmised that there had been at least three thieves involved. One decoy to put his bag up on the rack, to shield a second, who would remove the daypack and pass it out of a window, behind where we were seated, to a third assailant, before they made their exit.
Ironically now with a full quota of passengers, the bus was ready to leave. The
Is it a pig? Is it a cow?
No It's a Hippopotamus amphibius.
officers suggested delaying the bus departure to mount a further investigation, but the thought of enduring any more time at the bus station was just too much. Furthermore, to impose this on the fifty or so fellow passengers was tantamount to collective punishment. And in an almost subconscious attempt to deny the loss had ever happened, we told the driver to get us out of there.
There hadn’t been $3000 in the bag, but there had been a laptop, an mp3 player and a camera amongst other things. Most importantly were our baby’s first ultrasound photo and Jennifer’s collection of photographs and journals from years of travels, complete with replicate CD’s - all lost and completely irreplaceable. It was sad and reflective journey to Masindi, with a teary Jennifer conceding she didn’t know how she’d recover from this, and that she simply wanted to go home.
Yet by the end of the five-hour bus ride, a philosophical mood had set in, as we rallied for the next stage of the journey. Finding somewhere to stay and a car for our trip the following morning were now our major concerns, allowing us to withdraw and somehow avoid acknowledgment of
We hit the road early, stopping at the Budongo Forest reserve for a four-hour guided chimpanzee walk. We covered quite a distance, and several times we’d apparently come quite close. The chimps were still in the process of being habituated, our guide informed us. This in primatologist parlance basically means they’re not fully accustomed to sitting round while groups of tourists file past taking pictures.
So despite hearing them pound on tree trunks and smelling their very distinct scent at close quarters, they always seemed to be roaming ten trees ahead of us, or so we excitedly believed. Most people in our little group were quite disappointed by this, however, leading our poor guide to apologise profusely for the chimps uncharacteristically anti-social behavior.
Personally, I left Budongo Forest with a massive amount of respect for our wily cousins, and couldn’t help thinking how many ways we, as a species, have been habituated in our daily lives, so that we cease to respond to certain stimuli. And now we simply sit there, munching away, as the world passes us by.
We made it just in time for the afternoon boat trip up the Nile to
Murchison Falls. Touted as the most exciting thing to happen to the river in its entire length, the falls were unfortunately overhyped, in my opinion. Yet the journey along the river was quintessential Africa; wild, seemingly inaccessible, with abundant wildlife, living in its element.
As we were now in the park anyway, we decided to take full advantage by coercing our driver to take us out in his two-wheel drive saloon car, on a little safari, bright and early the next morning. Jennifer’s first, my first and our companions’ umptillionth. Imagine their horror at the first sign of wildlife, me and Jennifer pile out of the vehicle to take a closer look. In our defense they were only Giraffes, and our rookie driver didn’t seem too concerned!
We drove around the park snapping away at everything that moved, a hierarchy of importance quickly developing amongst the park’s inhabitants, our consumerist desire scrabbling up the food chain for animals with bigger teeth, higher kill rates and ultimate elusiveness. Big five, Big seven; I’ve seen more than you have! But unfortunately our driver had to be home for lunch, and was trying to fulfill a hidden agenda; if he could
Along The Nile
get out of the park before the 24hr mark, he’d get to make a few extra bucks!
Yet despite hurtling back through the bush and Budongo Forest, at breakneck speed, traumatized wildlife scattering in our wake, we didn’t quite make it in time. A predictable spat then ensued between the park wardens and the driver, who in his frustration refused point-blankly to pay for another day. It culminated in us speeding through the gate before they had a chance to trap us in the park, but then he thought better of his short-sighted plan, and drove back, to beg forgiveness.
Our new travel buddies returned to Kampala. We were heading south-west toward Fort Portal as soon as we fetched our luggage, hopping through small towns, picking up whatever transport we could as we went.
In one nondescript town I went off in search of transport leaving Jennifer with the bags, and when I returned she was in a pretty irate mood as a group of guys had been harassing her. Travelling lore suggests that the less explored a town, the friendlier the people should be. But the guys in this town seemed to have a real aversion
to our presence.
I couldn’t let this revelation lie without further investigation and began questioning people about how many Mzungus passed through town. The reply was that in this area, tourist numbers were negligible, which further dumbfounded me. Until one of them pointed disdainfully to a large house in the hills, facing the town; home they claimed, to a group of NGOs.
This hostile reception seemed to continue, as we criss-crossed through the Midwestern region of Uganda. I wasn’t certain whether our robbery had stamped victim across our foreheads, or whether it had simply sapped our tolerance for such encounters. When dealing with belligerent and disrespectful people on the street, it is easy to get emotionally involved, and the forgotten loss of Jennifer’s bag began to take on a heightened, more personal significance.
Bobbling back to the surface, I began searching out scapegoats for our crime, and in this environment it wasn’t difficult to develop feelings of ill-will towards our less than hospitable hosts. In order to counteract the natural inclination to get emotionally involved, it is easy to build a cynical stoic persona to shield yourself. But divorcing yourself from the environment, of course, creates
isolation. And if I’m here isolating myself from the people I encounter, there is really no purpose in travelling to such places.
So I found a third method; losing myself in mounds of literature in an attempt to explain all of this away. The regions we passed and the tribes we met. Searching for answers to mitigate the hostile reception we were encountering whenever we stepped off the beaten track. There had to be a traceable explanation.
Uganda is made up of many distinctive ethnic groups, with tribalism running a lot deeper in this country than your casual visitor is able to truly comprehend. Over a dozen tribes were grouped together with tactical insensitivity by the British into one colonial possession. The standard divide and rule policy began with the encouragement of one ethnic tribe, the Baganda, along with Indian immigrants, into business. Meanwhile the army was stocked with Acholi, Langdo and other northern ethnic groups; creating a military ethnocracy.
Perhaps the most infamous Ugandan is Idi Amin. Helped to power by the west in 1971, the self-proclaimed “Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire
in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular." The head of Uganda between 1971 and 1979, he attempted to purge the Ugandan army of its Acholi and Langdo majority. After this, he turned his wrath on their civilian populations as a whole, and during his eight year reign of terror it is estimated some 300,000 people were killed.
He also deported Uganda’s 80,000 Asians and expropriated their properties. However, the sad truth is that this measure gained him support from the majority of Ugandans; and speaking with many Ugandans today, it is clear that racism is not far from the surface whenever talk winds its way around to their continued presence.
Unfortunately for Uganda, the seven years after Amin’s demise were worse than those that preceded it. Milton Obote, whom Amin had previously overthrown in a coup, went on to wage another tribal war, with the tribes that had been persecuted under Amin regaining power. An estimated 750,000 people were displaced during the ‘Bush war’ and put into camps, resulting in a death toll estimated to be as high as half a million.
In 1986 Yoweri Museveni (the current president) won his bloody struggle for power, immediately
setting the Ugandan Army (the UPDF; minimum age for service 13) upon the Acholi in the north; persecuting anyone who was perceived as part of the previous government, killing tens of thousands, and displacing hundreds of thousands more.
This is now one of Africa’s longest running conflicts. Nearly two million people have been displaced, many of whom live in camps, purportedly to protect them from the LRA (Lord Resistance Army), who were themselves set up in response to Museveni’s ethnic cleansing policy in the north.
A thousand deaths are recorded each week in the camps due to starvation and disease, leading a former UN Secretary General, Olara Otunnu, to accuse the Museveni government of slow motion genocide against the Acholis. Yet even though he is about as democratic as Robert Mugabe, Museveni is a darling of the west after opening up Uganda to the shock therapy of economic neo-liberalism.
The magnitude of these people’s suffering did put our own seemingly insignificant loss into context. War in itself couldn’t be the culprit, however, I surmised. Because when I’d travelled to war-torn southern Sudan some years before, I met sincerely, the most hospitable and open people I have encountered
anywhere in the world. For decades, as in Uganda, tribe has been pitted against tribe, race against race, with not just economic and cultural implications resulting, but wholesale slaughter and genocide.
But here one could argue it is different. One tribe gains prominence over others for a time, until another gains power and the vengeance is returned, and multiplied; creating a deep-set vendetta that transposes many tribes, races and generations, in a seemingly unending struggle.
We did eventually attempt an escape from humanity for a while, with a hike over the Ruwenzori Foothills, but alas, permission from the authorities wasn’t granted. So we decided to bus it around instead to the last town in Uganda on the Congolese border - a psychological refuge from Uganda, set in the Congo Rainforest behind the mighty Ruwenzori Mountains! That is how desperate I had become to seek out a new beginning, to meet friendly people who didn’t seem to be hostile towards us because of the color of our skin.
I felt personally responsible for Jennifer’s loss, and for every negative experience we encountered after, having sung the praises of Africa for so long. How could this place be so
The Congo Rainforest
Natural hot springs, Sempaya, Semliki National Park (bottom left)
different? After all, the guidebooks had labeled it a microcosm of Africa, and Kampala one of its safest cities... A pathetic excuse; I should have been more vigilant.
But it was in one of these friendly little godforsaken towns -which the locals referred to fondly as The Garden of Eden, despite it being filled with refugees from myriad wars raging in The Congo - that I began to question my irrational response to this whole incident. I realized I was going through very distinct emotional phases since the loss of Jennifer’s bag. I’d remembered learning of something in Psychology class over a decade ago, but believed it was only relevant to loss of a loved one - not a bloody bag!
A few days later I was able to check it out on Wikipedia; The Kubler-Ross model’s "Five Stages of Grief" 1. Denial, 2.Bargaining, 3.Anger, 4.Depression, 5.Acceptance. Applicable to any form of catastrophic loss (job, income, freedom etc…).
But before I’d had chance to research this theory, I had naturally, if you will, passed through the last and crucial stage, when we’d returned to Fort Portal. Still holding out hope of tracing Jennifer’s computer, I walked into
a computer shop (Asian-run) and asked if they could find the exact model number to the one Jennifer had lost, as I was interested in buying one. They’d phone their contacts in Kampala, they said. How many such models could be in circulation, I thought? I was excited, but they said it was too late in the day, and that most shops in Kampala would be closing. They suggested I return in the morning.
But I refrained; deciding to at last accept the loss, which Jennifer herself had come to terms with many days before. And from that moment onwards, we travelled south and the people became warmer and our perception brightened. Was it my psychological journey through the five stages of grief, or the different tribes encountered in that region? Whether it was meeting the right kind of people, having a more positive outlook on things, or a combination of all of the above, one will never truly know...perhaps I'd just been habituated?
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