DAY 98 SUNDAY 25th FEBRUARY 2018. SIPI, UGANDA
My usually infallible bump of direction gets so confused down here, just about on the Equator. Is the sun north of me here, or south at midday? I know it still rises in the east and sets in the west, but shortly after the equinox, just where is it? It must be going north by now? Changing hemispheres, everything is turned on its head for one so accustomed to the clear angles of fifty degrees north or so.
Thus it was that I took a wrong turn out of Jinja and added fifty somewhat frustrating miles to my ride today. I thought I was riding east: I was riding north. It took me 120 kilometres to reach Iganga, 38 kilometres east of Jinja, a narrow triangular route.
Stopping at a petrol station, when I finally realised I was on completely the wrong road, I asked a fellow in a car (always ask another driver about roads in Africa). “How can I get back to Iganga? How are the roads?”
“They are good. Murram…. If you want tar, you must return to Jinja; but if you don’t mind a little adventure, you can go back a kilometre, turn to the left and go by Bulopa.”
Well, what was I to do? The glove was down. The earth road to Iganga was actually in good condition, recently graded and almost as quick as the tar road, if you take into account the multitude of speed humps on the tar. I bowled along for another 60 kilometres, only a little over an hour, getting tied up in a damned cycle race, dangerously mixed with screaming supporters on boda-bodas, all enveloped in a vast cloud of fine dust; dust that certainly won’t have done any good for the straining cyclists, and dust that fills the eyes and lungs for future problems for the millions of Ugandan boda-boda riders (not to mention the dwellers beside dust roads), almost none of whom take precautions against dust or any other hazard. Respiratory and eye diseases are a time bomb for Uganda’s future – in a country with little medical provision and largely private health care, but maybe the average Ugandan doesn’t live long enough to reach that stage on life… Gosh, life in Africa makes you think.
The Mosquito seems to be adapting well to its electronic transplants (better than I am with my bionic teeth) and runs along well now without the palpitations of last week. It’s given pretty well trouble free service on this safari, now going towards five thousand miles. I’ve come to quite respect this machine, so small it seemed at first, but which has revealed itself to be an ideal touring companion: lightweight, manoeuvrable, not uncomfortable since Rico found the wide seat, and extremely economical at 80 or 90mpg.
My transplants don’t work quite so well! “Oh, I don’t want to see..!” exclaims delightful Precious, turning away but secretly fascinated, as I removed the plate to eat my supper – for it clatters and grinds if I don’t. With most of my smile now in my hand, she screeched, “NO! Don’t laugh! I won’t look!” She’s never seen such a thing before: in Uganda if you get old enough to lose your teeth – which few do – no one attempts restorative dentistry to maintain their vanity. It’s just a fact of life, and a mark of respect that you attained the grand age of the 2% of over 65s. One old lady here in Sipi, last week reached 102, an age that is talked about far and wide, born in 1916. Imagine the changes she has seen in African ways of life, although Alex says her memory is a bit faulty and slightly confused; but she enjoys the respect of Sipi, nonetheless.
Back on my road at last, I had spent an extra hour and a half on my journey. The weather is changing now as the rainy season approaches; the meteorologists forecasting an early wet season this year, so it is beginning to tell already. By afternoon, the last few days, I have watched dark clouds form; as yet in isolated thunderstorms that pour the contents of their heavily saturated clouds in dramatic outbursts, that are short and localised. One such formed ahead of me as I rode, so I took shelter under the zinc canopy of a small guest house at the roadside, riding right onto the terrace and waiting out three quarters of an hour under the noisy roof with three young women, hardly out of school, one nursing a baby, and a fellow folding sheets. Boys along the road stripped to their underpants and ran in and out of the quickly forming deep puddles at the pitted roadside, leaping and screeching with glee at their improvised swimming pool. Small pleasures provide so much diversion for African children: no need for the ubiquitous ‘devices’ and materialism of our ‘sophisticated’ children: a muddy puddle; an empty oil container on small wheels, steered by a stick; an old motorcycle tyre rolled along as a hoop; a cardboard box or empty cans, mud to sculpt, a stick to wave and slash: these are all you need, and anyway, you have duties to watch over the family cattle by the roadside, to carry loads – and hopefully, attend school, even if only for a few years. The vast majority here are basically literate and most speak English to some extent at least, even in rural communities
The roads never leave habitation in this intensely populated land. I seldom see anything resembling countryside, unless maintained as a natural area by government decree. Every acre, even be it at 45 degrees to level, must be put to account in a land with 50% of its inhabitants under fifteen years, and growing at such an alarming rate. Being Sunday, many were dressed for church, the matrons sporting what must be the fashion: the shiniest, most vibrant fabrics swathed from neck to sandals, with two curious volcanoes of fabric sitting on their shoulders like a visual shrug. It’s a fashion so obvious that it will date very hastily, but it makes work for the numerous seamstresses and tailors, and makes the scant money go round.
I paused while it was still so hot for chai (African tea), that turned out when it came to be local black coffee, weak and insipid, mixed directly in the flask. It was lunchtime, and the simple, somewhat grubby ‘hotel’ was serving up gigantic quantities of carbohydrate, supplemented with a few bits of goaty gristle: starchy rice, mashed matoke (savoury local bananas), red kidney beans and potatoes. Cooking is done in huge cauldrons, balanced over sticks and charcoal on a few rocks in a corner. Most work takes place on the floor, the cooking women bending supply from the waist. Service is at the omnipresent Chinese plastic chairs and tables on plastic plates and cups. These are washed in cold water and soap powder, recycling hastily from a small supply. Wiped with a greasy scrap of old towelling, they are refilled in moments, the giant piles of food slopped unceremoniously with wooden spatulas straight from the cauldrons. It’s all a bit unseemly to me, but fingers are soon dipping and dripping into the food. Quantities are prodigious, but nutrition probably poor. No one can comprehend that I don’t want to partake: all I want is some tea – or coffee, as chance elects.
At such times I often think of my old friend, Kim from Norway, one of MY travel mentors, now about 83 I guess, whom I met so long ago in Bolivia when I was green. We’ve always remained good friends. She taught me to drink from cups with my left hand when in doubt of hygiene, for most of the world drinks with the right hand, from that side of the cup!
With pauses to shelter, extensive detours thanks to my confused bump of direction, and a horrible 25 kilometres of heavily pot-holed and part-rebuilt road, it was almost five before I reached Sipi and a blustering, extravagant welcome from Precious, Alex still at work at his hotel in town ten miles away. It was eight before he came home, and sat on my bed (there really IS very little furniture here!) to talk and share my chicken, matoke, tomato salad and rice supper.
“We are building! The first room – it’s called Jonathan’s House – is almost finished already. I am determined. All I needed was the help to start! Precious will show you tomorrow; we will soon start to decorate it. Oh, yes! It will be ‘self-contained’ (en-suite)! The provision is already there. I just have to get the blocks for the bed, and finding the grass has been difficult. But we are working hard. I am determined! We thank you so much for your help, Jonathan. It was all we needed. We will use the help wisely.” And I know they will; a push was all they needed. I realised that as soon as Alex told me that the remaining Ugandan money I left him last year as I rode away back to Kenya (£34) had been invested in seed potatoes: thinking for the future, a choice that paid off so well for him in a year with bad harvests; a year in which those ‘Irish’ supported his family and neighbours and prevented hunger. It’s so unusual to meet Africans who plan ahead; the problem of this continent.
I have given Alex and Precious £200 in much needed start-up capital in the past four weeks. From this I am convinced he will build up a business, using his and Precious’s imagination and drive. He already has begun on the second round house. They will be on his own property along the track from this cliff-edge site, so short-sightedly and jealously argued over by his co-owners. If they but saw how they could help him to turn this site into a small goldmine, he could be flying by now but, not planning for the future, his co-owners, living in Canada and distrustful and greedy, want their return instantly, unable to understand the ‘speculate to accumulate’ law of capitalism. So he will develop a pleasant ‘resort’ but without this spectacular view. He is proud to tell me that he already has the first two bookings! Not until October, he laughs, but the support of the people to whom he showed his nascent resort has been encouraging. Next time I come to Sipi – for I am sure I will sometime visit Alex and Precious again – I will stay in Jonathan’s House.
For now, I am in the broken-down thatched room, with a gentle spray of rainwater coming through the roof, for a violent thunderstorm with exciting mauve sheet lightning, sprays a light show across the rain-washed view of the enormous plain below my doorstep. The wind is loud, the night wild – but it will be brief and dramatic, as is all weather on this extreme continent. I will sleep very soundly here in Sipi, once again with my welcoming young friends.
DAY 99. MONDAY 26th FEBRUARY 2018. SIPI, UGANDA
Soundly indeed I slept – for ten hours. I rather look forward to coming to Sipi, because it is so conducive to sleep. It’s a bit like sleeping in a tent – only a good deal more comfortable: fresh mountain air, silence and warmth.
This was a quiet, calm day. Against Precious’s ideas of hospitality, I insisted on walking by myself down into the valley below to visit Michael, who was working here as askari on my last visit, and his wife Rose, the delightful, ebullient character who cannot talk, but communicates so extravagantly with her expressive face. They live on their shamba two or three hundred feet below our high bluff. The walk involves clambering down a rough ladder, some forty feet high, to negotiate a part of the rock faces that circle the valley below. As I approached the top of the ladder, I heard voices below and, looking down saw a young couple beginning to climb. Lilly, a pretty girl, was climbing completely unselfconsciously bare breasted, followed by Shafiq, her husband or boyfriend. Seeing my camera, they asked for a photo, never a problem for me, but I was a little disappointed when Shafiq suggested that comely Lilly should replace her tee shirt! Down the mountainside I was warmly welcomed by the lovely Rose, so expressive despite her inarticulate noises; a delightful woman.
Poor Alex is being frozen out of his part-inheritance here at Coffeeland Resort by his jealous relatives. A young man has come to stay, representing the members of the family who claim ownership, despite the late owner, a great uncle of Alex, willing him partial rights to the place. With my somewhat rosy views of African life I often don’t see the family jealousies that are unpleasantly common. The man who is staying here now, is here to survey the resort and cost the improvements required from the family. This afternoon as he was discussing water connection with an official, Alex’s name was not mentioned in association with ownership, and he has had no negotiation about potential management.
But Alex, with my seed money, is striking out on his own. In the afternoon, Precious and I walked to their own plot, on which they have built their own mud and stick house – and are now constructing the two first bandas of their own resort. They have big plans: a new kitchen is being constructed; the earth has been dug from an embankment to build the bar; there are plans for a raised drinking terrace, car parking, and gardens. I am impressed: this is ambition. Good for them, and good luck. I feel they will prosper. I also predict that the restoration of the cliff top resort will be ill-planned, badly executed and badly managed, and will result in little good for the greedy family, for they don’t understand what visitors want: a warm welcome, imagination and congenial surroundings. I doubt they will achieve any of that without Alex and Precious.
As the sun sank in the sky, a smart 13 year old neighbour, Sam, took me on a walk; at three times the speed of Precious, it must be said. We walked along the precipitous edge of the cliffs around the top of the great amphitheatre and watched a fine sunset from the edge of the rim above one of the now dry falls for which Sipi is famous. Sam was bright and sharp; a good guide. Sitting on the rocky heights beside the yawning drop another boy sat, whittling at a length of eucalyptus with nothing more than the customary machete that every man and boy carries in rural Africa. “What are you making?” I asked. “A gun!” he laughed shyly, showing me his work. The valley constantly hums to the sound of chain saws from below, where men cut fast-growing eucalyptus. Straight and supple, they form the basic building material for all the local houses, fences and structures and bring in about £5 a tree for their owners.
Walking back, now in virtual darkness, for the light fades quickly here on the Equator, we were trailed by a parade of small people, chorusing their, “Hello! How are youuuuu?” One small boy slipped his hand into mine, rubbing his other hand up and down my hairy arm in fascination. I was glad of his small steadying presence as I am always almost blind in the dark, unlike Africans, used to it, who can run and jump if required.
DAY 100. TUESDAY 27th FEBRUARY 2018. SIPI, UGANDA
The weather is changing fast. It’s time to leave; motorbike travels in the rain lose their attraction. And with the rain, the temperature drops too. In the afternoon I witnessed a dramatic rain storm: it cascaded down as if thrown from buckets, and then hailstones the size of peas machine-gunned on the tin roof. In moments all was mud and runnels of rushing water. Just before it happened I was outside in Kapchorwa, the town ten miles up the hill; for we are in the foothills of Mount Elgon, one of Africa’s highest. As I watched, a most extraordinary phenomenon occurred: clouds, boiling and spinning, coiling and billowing, and travelling fast at ground level, enveloped buildings around me, blanketing out the view even a hundred yards distant, a very strange thing to watch in an urban environment.
Alex and I had gone to Kapchorwa to attend a meeting of his volunteer group; the one that dealt with encouraging less births until the vile trump (I never grace him with a capital T) cut the funding because he ‘had more pressing needs for the money at home’ – like giving tax breaks to the disgustingly wealthy, I suppose, now that the richest 8 people in the world, of whom six are American, obscenely, have wealth equal to the poorer 3.6 billion HALF of the world population (2016). Now, fortunately, the Dutch have stepped in and the same volunteer leaders are focusing on trying to discourage gender based violence – although how they hope to have much effect in this male dominated society that knows no social control, I wonder. But these men are doing their best to bring a little enlightenment to their poorly educated, rural communities, some of them through music and drama, some through regular social sessions with the older men of the villages, some by gathering groups of youth, and one by trying to influence the 1000 boda-boda riders of Kapchorwa town and district. 1000..! They are well meaning men in a project coordinated by three women, it seemed. Consulate, the facilitator of the project, I met last year, and so I was invited into the meeting once again. Alex said later that my presence had certainly livened up the session. For we began with lots of questions to the mzungu: most of them about family size and inheritance in England. Needless to say, I astonished them with some of my views about the viability of this poor planet being so vastly over-populated, to the extent that their grandchildren will look upon this profligate age with anger, when they are even more in poverty than at present, for resources in these countries remain the same or reduce. I argued with them about the ridiculous vanity they showed in fathering so many children. “I predict that your great grandchildren will be fighting wars over water. Water is finite on this planet. So is land.”
“Oh, but we will pray to god for more,” said one man, in all seriousness. What answer is there to such blindness? One of the others, slightly more sensible, and more persuaded by science than by the many centuries old morality myths of the Quran and Bible, commented, “We are already fighting wars over water…” and mentioned some locality where violence was rife over water rights.
Then someone laughed and introduced me to one of the two Moslems, from a backward rural area down the hills. “Tell Jonathan how many children you have!”
“Twenty six. With four wives!” he told me, with evident pride.
“Because the Quran tells me, and because I want my children and their children to remember me.”
“How can you meaningfully educate 26 children, and keep them healthy? It’s not possible. I guarantee you WILL be remembered, but for your greed and irresponsibility and for condemning your great grandchildren to even worse poverty than exists in Africa now. Uganda is said to be the fastest expanding population on earth, but the land stays the same size, with the same resources. Surely you can see the link between we in the West having an average of two children and being rich countries with high education and average life expectancy of 78 or 80, and your poverty, hard graft and dying at 57? Two percent of your nation reach my age – and I am still riding a piki-piki round Africa!”
But the argument is all about land and inheritance. They just could not comprehend that my wealth will be shared amongst friends, willed away quite thoughtfully to those it will benefit. In Africa, ownership of land is all important, and male inheritance the only acceptable form of lineage. My arguments fell on largely deaf and non-comprehending ears, except for a couple of educated younger men (Alex and Robert), who want only one or two children, that they can care for adequately and without stress. I might as well have saved my breath. “But it livened up our meeting!” said Alex on the way home.
When the torrents stopped, Alex and I went to the Kapchorwa market to buy food for our supper. The market in Kapchorwa is a mean affair of scrappy wooden shacks along a couple of earth lanes. Now it was unsightly with thick mud and all the wares looked accordingly dingy: plastic shoes covered over by sheets of dirty plastic; derelict second hand clothes gathered hastily from the wires looped along walls, now being rehung on bent wire coat hangers; earthy sacks of ‘Irish’ and cabbages; small piles of tomatoes, bunches of small purple onions, luscious avocados and bundles of green vegetables – all laid out under the dripping roofs of the squalid stalls, women traders lying amongst their wares on the tables, babies and small children everywhere. Amongst all this we slithered and slid in greasy mud, filling another African black plastic bag with our supper, later cooked by Alex at home at his new house, for he is backing away from the Coffeeland resort and concentrating on his own project now that the family member is here to plan new concrete pavilions utterly unsuitable to the site and cottages that will be mismanaged – if they ever transpire. It’s only jealousy that has prompted this sudden interest by the family members blocking Alex’s part ownership: one of them heard that a rich mzungu had come to Coffeeland and Alex was getting rich! That’s me – paying £4 to sleep in a tumbledown, slightly leaky hut. The more I find of family relationships in several parts of Africa, the more envy I witness: it seems people do not celebrate the success or good luck of their children or siblings but fight them for a cut of the perceived profit. Alex’s own father is angry about his son trying to launch out and develop his own business, whereas you’d think he would be giving every encouragement. The family now thinks that Alex has a ‘rich white man’ (me with a gift of £200) and wants part of that deal too. And yet, all the talk in this afternoon’s meeting was of family love, closeness to siblings and the support of neighbours. It seems to me that here is a great romanticised theory, but reality often differs.
Sometimes (and rain and chill don’t help!) I think I have seen enough of Africa. The insoluble problems weigh me down, when I hear of the the social ills these volunteers try to eradicate or at least reduce: idleness, drug abuse, alcoholism, rampant rape – and I mean rampant: even fathers with their own daughters – teenage pregnancy, non-consensual sex, murder within the family (usually about inheritance), jealousies and greed. Why can no one see that all these are directly connected with over-population and an average of almost eight children per poor, struggling, early-dying woman? My view of the surface is often so rosily specced, my knowledge slight of social and traditional mores. When I glimpse below the surface at the roiling emotions, it depresses me. This, with my extremely pessimistic predictions for mankind’s ability to sustain life on this planet beyond the next few centuries, makes my thoughts gloomy as I ride, for having seen and begun to understand this mess that is Africa, I can’t just put my head back in the sand. The friendly, outgoing, cheerful surface that I often see as a visitor is just that: the cheerful surface with which everyone greets a stranger. No, now the rain’s coming and I am seeing the seamy side, it’s time to go back and enjoy the fact that my birthright is so much more comfortable.
Riding with Alex on the carrier, we passed a large group of boda-boda boys – every group is large at every junction or destination; well, it would be, with a thousand members of the local boda-boda organisation alone – as we passed, Alex started to laugh and translated their calls. “Hey, if mzungus start to ride boda-boda, where will we get customers?!”
It’s a two-blanket night in my hut. The temperature plunges with the rain. Usually I sleep with no more than a sheet. I hope the roof doesn’t leak on my bed. Precious and Alex are so sad that I could not stay in the first of their bandas by now. They await the next visit for that. They are charming young people.
DAY 101. WEDNESDAY 28th FEBRUARY 2018. KITALE, KENYA
Back ‘home’: “You are more one of the family now, than a friend! You are welcome any time!” says Adelight. Happily, all the girls are home for half term holiday, so we are a cheerful, full household.
Thanks to the rain, I decided to take the longer route back to Kitale on the tarred roads. The broken road through Suam would be just about impassible now; all that thick dust turned to clogging mud; the hard earth turned to greasy slipperiness; the rocks washed downwards. There will be abandoned vehicles stuck in the mess, churning up the filth as they are extricated. Better to go lamely round on the tarred roads, twice as far. The day remained sunny until 23 kilometres short of Kitale, when a violent thunderstorm, that I had watched gathering as densely slaty skies and dramatic clouds shapes, deluged its weight in forty minutes while I sheltered with some boda-boda boys, in their flip-flops and tee shirts, beneath a tin awning in front of some shops in a small, mud-swilled village. Water cascaded from the noisy, rusty zinc, splashing into the rivers of mud below. The temperature plunges and the boda-boda boys shivered as I pulled on waterproofs. Soon, in the succeeding drizzle, they were back out looking for customers; the customers themselves in shirtsleeves huddling behind the riders in spray and wet. It’s hard when the rains come.
The Malaba border is one that carries most of the commercial traffic between the coast and the interior countries, horrendous lines of trucks and tankers jockeying to pass the rutted, broken, narrow bridge that allows single file traffic. Fortunately, with my motorbike, I could weave my way through and accomplish my business – arcane though it appeared to be – at different windows. No one seemed quite sure what to do with my papers, and I still have the Ugandan customs document that should have been collected in Uganda. “Well, sorry, but I’m not going back! It’s their mistake, and so far as I am concerned, you’ve stamped my piki-piki back into Kenya and that’s all that I am bothered about!” All I wanted was to get out of the chaos. I rode away.
I’m glad to get away from Ugandan driving, the worst in Africa that I know. It’s interesting to see how much better is the infrastructure on the Kenyan side of the border. It’s cleaner, less densely populated and things just seem to work better. This country hasn’t the incredible population surge of Uganda (still a high birthrate, but not in the extremes of their neighbour), with the consequent pressure on resources and services. The ban on plastic bags has had perceptible influence – although a Ugandan told me that Kenya makes all their plastic bags; the ones that billow and litter the landscape, pollute the fields and strangle the animals of Uganda.
“Just as well you didn’t go to Ethiopia!” Rico greets me. “It’s in chaos; a state of emergency. The government has resigned. You’d have had trouble moving about, or been thrown out!” I can’t find details, but he gets the East African news here in Kitale; news that hardly registers on our Western- centric media. Still, it’d have been interesting to see for myself, but it would have made a lot of problems I suppose. With no government, the rest of the system will collapse quickly into a shambles…
DAY 102. THURSDAY 1st MARCH 2018. KITALE, KENYA
The rains have arrived. But, says Rico, “It might rain like this today, and not rain again for a fortnight.” But this feels like the start of the rainy season. A violent rainstorm, with attendant thunder, left a long, drizzly rain all evening. The ground needs it of course; it’s only me that doesn’t welcome the new season. Africa quickly turns to red mud and becomes unsightly – and little fun to negotiate on two wheels. Well, my journeys now are limited and will have to take place during windows of dry weather.
So a day of little activity beyond trying to find out why my Mosquito hasn’t been starting from cold for the past two or three weeks. I have had to bump start since I was in Rwanda. We think we have traced the problem to two tiny tears in the carburettor diaphragm. It’s not allowing sufficient fuel to start the motor. Looks as if I will have to continue to try to park on hills at night for a while! There are usually plenty of volunteers to give me a push. Cor, Rico’s Dutch neighbour, who’s something of an expert on motorbike engines, knows where we might get a new diaphragm in Nairobi.
The other afternoon, after sheltering from the rain for forty minutes, the bike wouldn’t start. “We push!” volunteered some boys. I thanked them, jumped aboard and began to push the bike with my feet down a slight, very muddy slope. I looked round and no one was pushing at all! Happily, the motor started before I got to the bottom. It starts easily with a push.
So I am happy to be here in Kitale, where I am made so easily welcome, during this wet period. The mornings are usually dry, so I may have to restrict my movement to earlier rides. It gets cold when it rains; not the cold of Britain, about which I receive various emails just now as temperatures plunge and even Devon is submerged beneath snow – the ‘Beast from the East’ as the media terms the cold spell, while the Arctic basks in temperatures way above freezing… My ‘cold’ is 15 degrees, when I have to put a thin jersey over my tee shirt and shorts.
DAY 103. FRIDAY 2nd MARCH 2018. KITALE, KENYA
It’s rained just about the whole day: wet, English rain. No doubt the farmers will be happy. I’m not. Oh well, I’ve only a few days to go. It makes for uneventful days though. Cor, next door, has managed to locate a new diaphragm in Nairobi for the Mosquito, which we hope will be sent up in a day or two, and I removed and replaced the carburettor successfully to bodge a repair, and managed to start the bike with a good push from two of the girls, so I can continue with my journey, dependent on the rain.
Meanwhile, it’s such fun to be part of this happy extended family. For one from a small nuclear family, being a member of such a cheerful, congenial, large household is a lot of fun. “Well, you’re not hard to get along with!” say Rico and Adelight; and I guess, in this situation, I’m probably not – but that’s more to their credit than mine! From little Maria, the happiest baby I’ve known, through Shamilla, who no one could help loving, through all the other girls, to Scovia, who just makes me smile to look at her – well, it’s an easy life for me, and a very joyful, merry one.