DAYS 42 – 44. FRIDAY 7th to SUNDAY 9th FEBRUARY 2019. SIPI, UGANDA
These have been quiet, uneventful days with my ‘family’ in Uganda. Alex exploited at work by his mean-spirited boss, who embodies all that is bad about African management; Precious delighted to have her mzungu to look after; the children Keilah and Jonathan, cheerfully filthy in the mud and dust of Sipi. Jonathan, at only 15 months, pisses as he goes and then sits about in the dust and still-damp mud. He’s probably the dirtiest child I’ve ever seen! If he wears them at all, he goes through six or seven pairs of red mud-stained trousers a day. Keilah, at almost three, is a bit more self controlled, but ends the day with a red hue. Washed for bed, they look wholesome and happy, contented, healthy children living a very natural life, building immunity every second. “You should eat a peck of dirt before you die,” was the wisdom of my grandmother’s generation. It kept us immune to illnesses and allergies so prevalent amongst over-protected modern children. Little Jonathan must have had his peck already. And he’s only 15 months! As I look down from my plastic Chinese table on the raised restaurant-to-be, he is sitting happily in the mud flower border, spooning dirt and weeds into his mouth, where everything goes.
There are children everywhere, shouting happy ‘hellos’ from the track that passes the new restaurant on stilts, that displays the mzungu so well to the passing villagers as I write. I wave back every few moments as I try to recover from Precious’s vast breakfast.
No child in these rural villages has any toys except those created by lively young imaginations. An old motorbike tyre used as a hoop is one of the most common. Trucks made from scrap and pushed on a stick. On a local walk we found eight children having raucous fun bouncing up and down on a long springy eucalyptus tree that had been felled across a small valley, some of them falling off into the undergrowth by a muddy stream. Great glee when the mzungu joined in for a few moments. Mud makes a glorious plaything of course. They live amongst cows and goats, muck and filth. Many will never attend school.
A pretty young girl, maybe 11 or 12, is sometimes around the house these days. She’s Lizpa, one of a relatively small Ugandan family of merely seven children to illiterate, unemployed parents. They live in a rude compound nearby. The father does nothing much; the mother has babies. And probably works herself to the bone. None of the children go to school; there’s no one to encourage them to do so. Lizpa helps Precious around the compound, doing small menial jobs in exchange for some food and second hand clothing. She doesn’t go to school, will probably never read or write. Her role in life will be having lots more babies – who will never go to school or learn to read and write. Like family cattle, she represents wealth: one day, probably very soon, she will be worth a dowry…
The first born of her family, a girl, is already married at 13 or 14, Precious tells me. And so history repeats itself. The churches do nothing to stem the overwhelming flood tide, the mosques no more; the appallingly corrupt government under its ruthless crook, Museveni, one of the richest presidents in Africa, responsible for so much unrest and crimes, has an interest in keeping the populous uneducated. They’re easier to control, don’t make waves, can be bought off with pennies. It’s one of the most corrupt, cynical regimes in Africa. A ballooning population. Half of Ugandans are under the age if 15. Literacy is low. Poverty is widespread. And not one of the so-called morally responsible authorities – the churches, the mosques, the government – does a damned thing about it, all self-interested in their profits and power.
Sons are still a gift from god, girls a trial and mothers who produce girl babies punished and discarded. No man would admit to the science that the man might have a part in transmitting the ‘wrong’ genes. It’s a woman’s responsibility to produce sons, not daughters. Men whose wives produce daughters find other women. Precious tells me the shocking story of a mother who died two weeks after giving birth – to a girl – whose husband ‘married’ another woman the day after the death. Women are baby-producing machines for many Ugandan men. Sadly, most of the ones sitting about the local bars drinking violent local spirits all day, don’t drink themselves to death until AFTER they father numerous children, leaving their upbringing to downtrodden, hard working, largely uneducated mothers. It’s a pleasure to be for a few days part of a responsible, thinking family here in Sipi, a family that enlightens me so much about the life around me.
Alex paid for much of his education himself, taking whatever small jobs he could find. One of nine children, there wasn’t enough money to pay for all. Alex is also committed to his voluntary work as a Youth Champion, volunteering for various causes, working out of Kapchorwa. These idealistic men attempt to spread messages of limiting family size, stopping FGM, educating girls, preventing violence against women and girls and the equal worth of girl children. They are relentlessly optimistic in the face of the appalling inequities all about them. “I was talking with one of my colleagues today. He was telling me how he regrets the third child. He has two boys and a girl”. Alex stirs our fire with a stick. “He wonders how he can educate the third one? He looks at his small salary and wonders how he can make it meet three children… So I see change! Change in people’s thoughts.”
Precious and Alex intend to stop at two. “Even the second, well, he was really an accident!” They both laugh as little Jonathan clambers about the flaming fire.
Walking with Precious amongst the local shambas, deep in the matoke trees, we met a sister-in-law to Alex. She’s a house in a lovely situation, on the edge of a steep bluff, a small lawn looking west into the sunset across half Uganda. She has a girl and a boy. “It’s enough!” she exclaims. “Two, I can feed and educate them”. Maybe enlightenment is dawning? But is it too late, in this alarmingly over populated land, in which the message only reaches those with the education and freedom to reject overarching ‘traditional’ attitudes? A land in which the majority of women share status with the pack animals? More cattle, more children – the ambitions of the overwhelming majority of African men.
With lovely Precious I sit and talk. She doesn’t get the exposure to the outside world that Alex enjoys so much. Her education level is lower than his, but she’s a natural good sense and sense of justice. Her knowledge of the world may be smaller, but her thoughts and opinions of what she sees around her are astute. She’s from the other side of the country, somewhat marooned here amongst another culture. Where Alex is separated by his well developed intellect, she’s also an outsider in this traditional community. Oddly, they face a lot of jealousy for their drive and ambition. Locals would quite like to see them ‘brought down a peg’, despite their humility, and respect for their neighbours. My impression is that much of this envy comes from the deep, deep corruption inherent in this country. Values based so firmly on the jealousy of relative wealth from hard work and endemic poverty from idleness – and witnessing so many clamber the ladder by petty corrupt means.
Corruption is commonplace at every level. Petty opportunist dishonesty and exploitation of any small employment advantage. Maybe this is why I found Alex and Precious so attractive, for I instinctively KNOW that they are 100% honest with money, in a country where few are. Precious tells me that any money I send to Alex for their guest house project is scrupulously used and accounted for. It’s never diverted to frivolous use. “Not even a soda! He uses it all very exactly!”
I’m not in any personal danger whatsoever in Uganda. This is a country with no threat of theft of any sort except in the handling of money, especially other people’s. It’s a land that issues summary local justice. Cry ‘thief!’ here and the mob will exact swift revenge on any miscreant. It’s in financial dealings that the corruption lies.
Says Alex, “The NGOs know how corruption is so common, so they won’t deal with the local managers of their projects at all. They say they’ll only pay money direct to the service providers. Straight to our hotel in Kapchorwa, for instance. But we Ugandans, we find ways around that! The local managers do a deal with the hotel owners. They report to their NGO sponsors – the Western charities – that they have a training session or a workshop for 44 participants. But there are really only 34. The NGO pays the money for 44 trainees and the hotel event organisers share the rest with the charity manager…” He says it with no pride. Alex despises this corruption. “How can Uganda develop if it’s people are like this..?”
“It is a behind country, a very behind country!” agrees Precious.
“Me, I won’t have anything to do with money in my hotel,” Alex says. “It’s just the sort of area where the owner would blame me for wrong dealing, so he could cut my salary even more!” He’s wise, is Alex. His pathetic salary is already small enough at about £60 a month, on call all hours, criticised by a bad employer, no employment rights in this country. Hotel manager for two pounds a day.
This corruption comes down from the very top, of course, from the crooked president and those about him. A fine example to a poverty-wracked country. Probably the richest president in Africa, utterly corrupt through and through. He buys off or ‘removes’ any opposition. Is surrounded by a phalanx of sycophants. Unlike the late Mugabe, Museveni doesn’t aim to insult and belittle Western leaders and contains his corruption and political meddling generally within East Africa enabling him to hold on to power for, so far, a 34 miserable years.
The wind has been cool, gusting up from the vast lowlands below. There have been wispy clouds dancing and coiling above us. Precious and I watched their antics, fascinated.
“So you say these clouds are at what distance?” she asks. I explained to her how my aeroplane flew above the clouds the other day, showed her the picture of sunset over North Africa that I took on my flight south in December. I suggest that these are low shreds of cloud, not rainclouds, just a bit of water vapour spinning through the blue, caused by the recent rains and the wet ground.
“So is there a distance from the clouds above to heaven? What’s that distance?”
Precious has a very literal concept of heaven from the fake pastors of the millions of church businesses that abound. It’s where Jesus sits on the right hand of God, somewhere up above the blue stuff overhead.
Trying to explain the geography of what’s still known popularly as ‘the heavens’, isn’t easy… She expresses amazement that the sun is so far away, has never considered what stars might be, no idea of planets and space. Trying to explain that her ‘heaven’ is a metaphorical concept, rather than somewhere she will sit down at a big canteen table with the late crook, Daniel Arap Moi (corrupt ex president of Kenya, who just died amidst great noise), overseen by Jesus sitting on the right hand of God at the high table, is difficult. Alex laughs at her questions later, by the fire in the evening, home from his exploitation at the ‘smart’ hotel. He’s better educated, questioning, knows about the moon missions, has a concept of space and infinity and the distance to the stars, the fact that we are living on the only planet so far known to support life.
“So where is heaven?” Precious persists. Instead I try to explain how far away is that shining dot – I guess it’s Venus tonight, glaring from the western ‘heavens’. I try to explain the fact that the nearest star is four and a half light years away. But I rather spoil it by not remembering how long is a light year! Alex laughs. It’s companionable to be here with these two young people, alternately smart and aware and innocent and gullible. Nice mixtures. Fun conversations. My injured foot up on a plastic chair, the fire is dying away now, here where the bar will one day be at Rock Gardens, named after my house in Devon. It’s fun to enjoy the respect, admiration and love of these two, enough that they named their grubby cheerful boy after me. Life’s good when you go out and meet it. Maybe this trip WILL be as good as the others after all… Just different, I suppose. Restricted by the stupidity of playing rounders on a beach – when I’m really old enough to know better.
Or should be.
DAY 45. MONDAY 10th FEBRUARY 2019. SIPI, UGANDA
A day or two ago, I burned my feet, sitting unthinking in the sun, unusually wearing flip-flops. The skin is very tender, stretched by the continued swelling of my right foot. Alex’s mother, Florence, who lives in the neighbouring compound, broke her ankle a year ago. She wanted to help my foot with local medicine. I’m always open to that, as she pulled leaves from a nearby hedge bindweed. She crushed the leaves in her hands and set to to rub the abrasive fibres over my foot as I sat in the shade of one of the conifers. How I screeched and leapt from my Chinese chair! It was very difficult to explain to her and Precious that I wasn’t objecting to her medicine but that the skin was burned – “Burned as if I’d put it in fire! Look, the tops of my ears are red too, and sore. And the top of my head!” The old lady wanted to help my foot. I wanted to protect the intensely sore skin from her rather rough ministrations. We compromised. I kept my hand on the sore areas and let her spread her green goo over the rest. It’s complicated to explain melanin and racial genetics to people who seldom see white skin!
Each afternoon, I have taken a good long rough walk in the village area. It’s attractive here. Very green and fertile, matoke trees making way-finding impossible for one not born to the village. We walk through people’s shambas on the winding red mud paths, climb the huge scattered rocks for views from the escarpment, meet neighbours and watch life, frequently in very basic earth and stick houses with zinc roofs, mud yards and few comforts. If any. It’s a life for most bordering on poverty, entirely dependent on the food they can grow for sustenance and small sales. When seasons fail, people suffer. It’s a simple equation: total dependence on the continuation of the usual cycles of nature, now severely threatened by climate change.
For four years now I have stood on the high edge of the escarpment gazing over the huge view westwards over a giant tract of Uganda. Right below wanders a red dust road through green matoke bananas, shambas and fields, separated by tall waving eucalyptus. Uncountable corrugated iron roofs punctuate the view, the newer ones winking as the sun lowers in the western sky. It’s a handsome scene and many’s the time I have said to Alex, or whoever my companion was – as I usually have a guide through the endless matoke trees and numerous shambas on the Sipi ridge – that one day I must go and take that weaving road. On Monday, Alex and I did just that.
Together on the Mosquito, we rode some way down the twisting tar road towards the great plains below. This is a road with appalling accident statistics. Driving here in Uganda is so bad and vehicles frequently dangerous and hugely overloaded. Matatus plunge over the edge on the steep bends, overbalanced trucks lose control of defective brakes, buses periodically leap from the turns and boda-bodas, insisting that there is economy in switching off their engines to coast the miles downhill, thus losing engine braking and lubrication, fly into the treetops below. The few road barriers have been long flattened – one truck took out a line of about thirty of the safety posts (years ago) before soaring into the void. It’s a one-hill population control facility, most drivers using brakes rather than gears to control – or not – their descents.
Some way down, using my gears and limiting my speed as boda-bodas freewheel past at silent speed, we turn off onto a dirt road amongst the ever-present habitations. For the whole 35 kilometre ride we will not leave the ribbon development of the last decades. “When I was small,” says Alex from the back, “there was forest here. Now look!” Alex is 34… I look. Hardly a shred of natural landscape is visible until the heights and precipices of the soaring cliffs above us. Even the high, apparently inaccessible ancient rock falls and soil slippages are now cultivated in small terraces of matoke bananas. Only the vertical red rock cliffs are in their natural state now. No one’s found any economic plunder from them yet.
The red dust road is damaged from the rains, but it’s quite well used here and the ruts have been ironed out by countless boda-boda motorbikes. Few walk any more. Alex is greeted with laughter by acquaintances, amused to see the mzungu as his boda-boda rider. He’s popular and well known, born to a long-resident local family, first born of nine children, some of whom have married into these communities lower down the mountain; also from his volunteering work in the reproductive health unit of the region, spreading wisdom with his fellow ‘Youth Champions’ to attempt to alleviate some of the self-inflicted suffering in these uneducated communities. It seems an impossibly daunting exercise to me, but he is always optimistic. He’s delighted to find some of his fellow volunteers down here on this winding dust road. They are doing important work, but scratching at the edges of an overwhelming problem. He taps my shoulder to stop. A new house is being built by the road, a crude structure of handmade red bricks and hand-poured reinforced concrete beams. An expensive house for the region, but coarse and ugly to my eyes. One of his friends, Tom, a tall gangly fellow, unusually tall for Uganda, where the majority are short, is a carpenter. I know Tom, he’s visited us and we’ve walked and talked together, a quiet, rather dignified young man. He is delighted by our stop and we sit with his workmates and the new owner of the somewhat rudely built house. It’s like a million others – hideous, functional and far from the vernacular. This is, I suppose, the new vernacular. ‘Vernacular Ugly’. Not an improvement, with its blocky shape and iron roof. I know it’ll have nasty steel welded doors. It’ll probably never reach the stage of rendering the rough bricks, that are held together by thick, squishy black cement. The roof timbers that Tom is nailing with six inch nails, are rough cut, warping and bowing. They are fresh from the tree, cut by chain saws in a manner I watch with trepidation. Men wield three foot motor saws in flip-flops, no eye protection and thin mtumba wear office trousers and dirty tee shirts. “Many of them die early,” Alex told me as we walked through a plantation on a steep hillside the other evening, where villagers had gathered to carry the off-cuts for firewood. “The vibration of the saws day after day does something bad to their livers.” I guess that’s the ones who don’t die from gory mistakes or falling trees…
The workmates are taking their break when we arrive, delighted to invite us to sit with them for a time. After the customary, “How OLD are you?”, comes the inevitable second question: “How many children do you have?”
I used to answer with a simple, “Two.” It saved any further discussion and contented everyone, even though they thought it FAR too few. Now, I have understood that I can help Alex’s dedicated volunteer work to shock the audience with, “None!” and encourage a conversation – the conversation Alex and his colleagues are trying to spread to rural communities. About the impossibility of educating and raising ten, twelve, fifteen, howevermany, healthy children on the proceeds of a miserable stretch of Ugandan shamba that grows bananas and coffee. News of the extreme damage to the planet is unknown. Global warming is unknown. Climate change is just a wetter year than usual. God will make it all fine again soon. We’ll pray. The fact that we have gone far beyond the reach of prayers is unknown. Alex joins me, his Reproductive Health hat on now. The man with whom I am mainly conversing is coy about the size of his family. I talk of the stupidity and vanity of ‘wanting people to remember me’ by producing untold numbers of off-spring. “They’ll remember these men alright, but for the wrong reasons! For lack of self control and vanity. How many here remember even the name of their great grandfather? No one! So what’s the point? In 1950 there were about 5 million Ugandans; now there are 46 million; by 2050 it’s estimated there’ll be 90 million! Uganda stays the same size, with the dwindling resources!”
“Yes, but the Bible says…” Here we go! I point out that the Bible was written one thousand seven hundred years ago, when the world was very different and population, estimated at a mere 300 million, three thousand TIMES less people! Well within the capabilities of the planet to sustain. And no one had discovered fossil fuels, motor cars, aeroplanes, materialism, the ‘free market’. But my words fall on generally deaf ears. The Bible is THE authority. When it’s not the Koran if course.
Alex laughs as we ride away. “Huh, that man has ten children! Haha, how you told him! But it’s good you come. We will make changes. But here in these villages education is so low. That small boy, the one sitting by me, I asked him, ‘why aren’t you in school?’ He said because his uniform was dirty. The other man said the boy’s father had died and the mother is going from man to man around the district. The family is disturbed. It’s the parents. They don’t guide their children.” Here, a woman without a man has nothing – no land, no rights, no support. Alex is wise and thoughtful. Compassionate too, but clear eyed about the problems of the communities around him. A young man who paid much of his own education. A man who has determined to have only two children so he can raise them well in the challenges of life in this poverty-stricken, overpopulated land. A man with dreams. Ambitions not just for himself but for his community and country. A man who sees, but doesn’t follow the easy route of corruption and exploitation. A fair man. A young man I am proud to know, whom this week has stood higher in my estimation the better I know him. He’s inspiring.
We ride on, a beautiful landscape, the high red and brown cliffs far above to the left, fine views downwards to the right. There are children everywhere. Calling. Excited to see a mzungu here, where obviously few penetrate. Waving. Chasing the motorbike with its assorted passengers. They should be in school. A minority are in school uniform here. We never leave habitation. Not for 100 yards. Every scrap is cultivated to attempt to provide a living for this vast population.
Miles on, we ride through a small village centre, scruffy and sculpted in dry mud, like the ‘road’. Men hanging about, women doing the domestic and farming work. People stare. Many wave and greet. It’s rough going. Then a lovely view ahead, the cliffs forming a high sunbathed wall, a waterfall pouring in suspended motion from the dark green edge against the deep blue sky. “Stop here!” says Alex, pointing to the side of the red path. It’s his sister’s house, next in line to Alex.
Doreen is smart and educated. Much like Alex. She finished senior school and was destined for university but, “That boy, he stole her! I was annngry!” says their mother, coming next morning to thank me profusely for our visit to her daughter. Alex’s mother is a cheerful woman with a commanding nature. A bit older than me, I imagine, I wonder if, given the power, she’d have limited her family, instead of the nine children? It seems to me that she has a common sense beyond her probable education as a woman of her generation. If she’d had only two children, she’d have worked hard to educate them. She obviously brought them up on sound values. “I made them WORK, from a young age! I said, ‘do this, do that…’ so they would know how to work.”
“But now,” she says with concern, “no jobs in Uganda. Very big problem, no jobs…” Yes, the inevitable consequence of everyone having seven, ten, twenty children.
So Doreen, like Alex, could have soared higher in different circumstances, become leaders of note, not just role models in their limited communities. But she married a farmer and lives in a remote village. Her husband, Leonard, is charming and hard working. I like him instinctively – my only guide. His elderly mother – 83, she says, but looking younger – equally hard working, hacks at her steeply sloping fields with a mattock, clearing coffee to plant vegetables to restore the field’s nutrition. Leonard has cows and pigs, and several large areas of coffee, matoke banana and vegetables. I am surprised to find that coffee has a magnificent spread of delightfully sweet-smelling white blossoms.
We tour Leonard and his mother’s shambas, impressed by the order and productivity. But Leonard’s father married five wives and the land is divided and spread about the hillsides. Dangerous hillsides in heavy rains, the soaring cliffs above fragile and quickly draining. “I have land up there!” Leonard points high above, to where a terrace, tiny from down here, has been hacked from a rock slide far up the cliff face. “Those are my matoke trees. Next time you come, we can go there.” And maybe climb the steep steel ladders that access the villages on the plateau several hundred feet above the vertical cliffs.
Next time we visit, I should like to stay a night with that attractive couple, surrounded by openly friendly people, happy to welcome a mzungu into their village. It was a delightful couple of hours. Who wants a safari park, when he can have an African village? My presence causes such pleasure and happiness. Doreen phoned her mother in greatest glee that Alex had brought his mzungu to visit her. It’s a wonder for me to be able to provide that thrill. Just by proving my equality.
The road home was little more than footpaths. Now we had several kilos of green tomatoes to carry as well as ourselves. Hard work, two up on those tracks and trails. With only one brake on the steep hills, for my rear brake has failed again. But we persevered through magnificent scenery under the sunny African skies, happy with our journey, home to supper by a fire floodlit by the full moon.
I was planning to return to Kitale on Tuesday, but Precious has claimed HER day with her mzungu! Alex had his, now she is jealous, so I must go with her and the small children to the local town, Kapchorwa, a wild west place up the hills from Sipi. It’ll be no penance, with happy Precious!
“But we MUST have children! It’s our culture!” Almost every Ugandan exclaims. The ‘tradition’ that holds back so much of Africa. And so many of its thoughtful, educated young people, the Alexs and Doreens, as well as her father in law – with his five wives and countless children.
DAYS 46/47. TUESDAY/ WEDNESDAY 11th/ 12th FEBRUARY 2019. SIPI, UGANDA
Each day, Precious and Alex persuade me to stay one day longer. Well, I have had to accept that this trip is different from all the others of the past seven years, slower, more circumscribed and concentrated on getting to know my various East African friends and families better. Narrower horizons, but none the worse for that.
Precious got her day out. As with so many Africans, time management is not her strong point. “We leave at one!” she told me, about 11.30. At 12.00 I suggested she started to get ready. She had to wash and prepare two toddlers as well as herself. So at 12.15 she started washing the breakfast things. It was 1.45 before we even left the house, on a long way round to the road where we hoped to get transport. We were walking, of course, at 3 year old speed – until I put Keilah on my shoulders to speed up the process. Not that it did, much. Precious isn’t the fastest walker either. By 2.30 we were at the roadside. No cars were available at that time, no matatus, only boda-bodas for the 16 kilometres up the mountain to Kapchorwa. I had refused to travel by boda-boda. In the end I had to accept that it was the only option we had.
After a serious lecture on the lack of concern for their own or their passengers’ safety, I climbed onto the very small motorbike. I doubt the rider had ever taken a slower journey, the 16 kilometres up to Kapchorwa! He crept along steadily, heeding my warnings for once and terrified maybe of the ire of the mzungu behind him. Little Keilah, almost three, rode between me and the rider. She’s comfortable with the mzungu grandfather now, and within minutes fell into deep sleep, cradled in my arms such that I had difficulty keeping us both balanced on the too small machine. She slept all the way to our destination, a guest house opened by a white man from the Netherlands. Head flopped on my forearm, she slept on over the badly deteriorated town dirt roads, waking only when I lifted her from the boda-boda. She’s a serious little girl, slow to smile, unlike her energetic, never resting little brother, my namesake, who plays with great independence around the compound all day long, filthy but concentrating and engaged all day. He seldom sleeps, but when he goes to bed at night he sleeps the night through quietly. I’ve become fond of them both. Engaging children.
Coffee and snacks was a family treat in the select surroundings of the mzungu’s green acre of a smart guest house. White people tend to like to stay at white owned guest houses – unlike me, who looks assiduously for African owned ones. I can stay in white guest house in Europe, why should I want to do so here? I observed that none of the white guests greeted us as they passed a few yards away. I find it natural to greet all Africans, as they do me. The four or five white guests appeared to have their own private but invisible ‘zones’, uncrossable barriers they’d instinctively set up. One of the things I love about Alex’s soon-to-be guest house is the way I am constantly greeted by passing locals.
To return from Kapchorwa, now with Alex and Innocent as well, and weighty bags of foodstuffs from the market, we negotiate with a matatu and pile into the cramped minibus. If I believed in the efficacy of prayer, this is a time I might indulge – screaming along at speeds I wouldn’t attempt even in a well maintained vehicle, let alone a derelict jalopy with no rear suspension and in all likelihood, bald tyres. I’m not sorry we are alighting at Sipi, before this mad driver careers down the twisting, dangerous hill towards Mbale below. We’re packed in, my knees to my chest, nowhere to put my legs and very little cushion left to the rear seat that I share with Precious, Keilah, Jonathan and all our shopping, a branch of green matoke bananas crushing through the back of the seat.
I am shocked to find that Alex’s cheating, miserable boss, the owner of the hotel who exploits his staff on the understanding that with so much unemployment, they are expendable and easily replaced – perhaps the worst, most mean-spirited management style imaginable, has still not paid his employees for January. It’s February 12th and most people here in Uganda live from hand to mouth. He is responsible for numerous poorly paid workers. School started over a week ago but few of the employees have the money to pay fees, so children are excluded while they wait on the pleasure of the disrespectful owner. I found this out, not because Alex or Precious informed me or asked for help, but in conversation about Keilah being ready to start at school. “We have no money for the fees, the books, the uniform, the pencils…” admitted Precious unwillingly. “Until Alex is paid, we have been living on the money you gave me when you left to go to Karamajong…” I gave Precious £10 when I left, knowing I’d be returning and would leave more when I go back to Kitale. “Why don’t you ask?” But Precious is too shy. “Oooh, Jonat’an, we cannot ask for everything from you!”
How hard life is for honest Ugandans with education. When I paid Keilah’s first term school fees (£40) and transport money to and from Kapchorwa (another £40), Precious burst into tears. These young people have so little support. It’s so sad to witness the realities of life in an African country.
Before I left, Alex was determined to set up the new signboard for Rock Gardens on the lane that passes his property. As the sun set, he hacked a couple of holes and called Innocent to bring out the newly painted sign that advertises his dreams. The village came to watch, idly gathering to see this new development. It’s sad, though, that so much jealousy exists in these rural communities. They assume that Alex is getting preferential treatment from ‘sponsors’ and are envious.
With Precious or Alex I wander through the matoke amongst local compounds, greeted by all. For many I am probably the first mzungu with whom they have shaken hands, which for them is a big excitement. Why, I wonder, when we are all the same apart from a microscopically thin layer of outside covering? My whiteness just marks me out as somewhat exotic in the rural shambas of the sub-villages of Sipi. There are white people to be seen in the Sipi trading centre at the top of the winding hill, but they tend to be aloof from the locals, specimens to be viewed at a distance. “Thank you to see me, thank you to see me!” repeated one elderly woman, pulling forward traditional folding wooden chairs for us.
One old lady of 102, lives in her basic mud walled home, a place dark with woodsmoke stains and bereft of comfort beyond a couple of old low stools. She was in the process of rolling a cigarette in what looked like a page torn from an exercise book. “She smokes this,” said Alex, fingering a tobacco plant outside her door. Well, it hasn’t done her much harm. She chattered with Alex, this oldest inhabitant of the area. “She is saying I should bring her sugar,” laughed Alex. Many of the old ladies, if they make it to old age, are still hard working women. Alex’s favourite aunt, Khalifa, made us tin mugs of black tea in her compound, a talkative woman, maybe about 80, first born of Alex’s father’s generation. She lives alone in her brown mud houses, her sons and daughters all living in neighbouring compounds. The other day she came to Alex’s place to fetch about 20 kilos of thick, clayey building earth that she would use to patch the plaster of her house. Rather bent over, with a long stick in one hand, she swung the bag onto her back and shuffled home.
I was shocked to watch the clouds gather to the north east (the way I have to go tomorrow) and later for steady rain to fall yet again. This safari has been impossibly marked by rain and mud. It’s chilly enough for a blanket round my shoulders by the campfire – tonight under the shelter of the one-day-to-be bar. Now, as I head for bed, storms are rolling around again.
DAY 48. THURSDAY 13th FEBRUARY 2020. KITALE. KENYA
On Thursday, after a week, at last made I my goodbyes to my Uganda family and set off back to ‘base’ in Kitale. The morning was cool, the skies filled with clouds, and thunder had rumbled below Sipi, down on the lower plains (where I had aborted my exploration of the northern tribes last week), through last evening. I was nervous of the road ahead, as I decided to ride my favourite East African road back through the remote border post at Suam River. One day there’ll be a tarred road here, but for now the new tarmac has reached all of three kilometres from Kapchorwa – on the 75 kilometre journey to the border. I’ll be able to enjoy the rigours and rewards of this beautiful, remote road for some time longer.
Rain clouds hung about the slopes of high Mount Elgon as I travelled eastwards, watching apprehensively, riding the earth surfaces. It doesn’t take much rain to make them very slippery on two wheels. But the rain held off, just about, only some drizzle making a few patches dicey amongst the road building works. All was going reasonably well, with a bit of caution.
I reached the forest area. In past times this has always provided the most challenging ride on this 125 kilometre journey back to Kitale. It’s a region with some steep hills and beaten through thick red dust that sits on top of very uneven rock. It’s the highest part of the trail, at 2555 metres (8300-odd feet), and has often been hard going here. I’ve struggled up and down one particularly bad hill a few times. But they were nothing like today! About a kilometre and a half of disgusting red clay, thick and greasy. There’s a steep hill down to an old, narrow colonial era bridge over a roaring mountain river, and an even steeper ascent to the top of the route. It’s like a ski run (and remember, I have no rear brake right now!). Boda-bodas slipped and slid and a car was slithering and revving, a crowd trying to heave it upwards. I skied downwards in low gear. The deep mud filled my knobbly tyre tread within yards, by boots grew in size. A third of the way down, still upright, my engine stalled from the build up of claggy mud that had locked my rear wheel! It took minutes to push and winkle the mud from my frame. It’s an old chain, from which Sam, the mechanic in desert Marabit, last year removed a couple of links to make adjustment easier. That’s fine under normal conditions, but it brings the wheel an inch nearer to the frame – perfect to make a thick, gooey, mud pie, sticky enough to lock the engine! 100 metres downward and it happened again. Again I mined the clay from my wheel. I splashed through deep brown puddles on the bridge and stopped wearily.
A policeman on a small trail bike laughed to see me. “Where to?” I told him Kitale as we laughed about the terrible conditions. Happily, he assured me that after another few hundred metres I would have no trouble all the way to the border. “The road is dry; there’s been no rain.” I struggled up the opposite hill, weaving amongst flailing boda-bodas, a marooned car and sliding people with bags and baggage. At the top lorries waited for their attempt. Maybe gravity would help them down to the river, but how they would all ascend the other slope I decided not to wait to see!
The rest of the ‘road’ was indeed dry and presented no more challenged than those to which I am used – rocky trails and a million or two bumps and potholes. The views make up for much of the hammering ride. It’s one of the most glorious bits of this part of the world. I just love it and ride along with what’s probably best described as a foolish grin of pleasure at the experience. People call and greet, children are excited. It’s just wonderful.
In the crude village of Tulel, I stop for chai and a rest, the sinecure of all eyes as soon as I take off my helmet and take a small wooden stool in the shade of a rusty roofed mud shack, grandly called the ‘Star Hotel’. The tea is hot, milky and sweet – and reviving. Hundreds gather to watch and talk with the white man. Not many of us stop in Tulel. I sip at my scalding enamel mug of tea as everyone one discusses the ‘mzee’ (elder) who has stopped in their midst and appears to them too old for all this. Two men who later lead our discussion are fifty and frankly look older than me. Gangly boys and girls flow from the local school, bright yellow shirts and blue shorts and skirts. An ancient holey tarp lies on the dusty ground on which pale cream coffee beans are drying. Coffee is almost white until it’s roasted. A small naked boy baby sits amidst the beans, perhaps adding his flavouring to the eventual brew. A line of idle men sit on a plank bench opposite me, debating my details. Green mountain slopes back them, glinting like a disco ball with zinc roofed habitations. The women, of course, are working, most of them with a baby on their back or crawling about nearby. There are children everywhere – this country with a median age of 15.8 years, beaten only by Mali at 15.4. (World median age is 30.4. UK, 40.5. Thank you Mr Wikipedia!).
After a time, one man ventures forth to talk with the mzee mzungu. I know the questions before they are uttered: “Where from? Where to? How old are you? How many children? What religion?” Usually followed by, “What team?”
This time I borrow my two children (thank you Sam and Alice!) and fake my protestant beliefs. It’s just TOO much to go into here otherwise. But we start a lively discussion – I’ll be here for an hour – about self-inflicted poverty, the education of children, the state of the planet (from my point of view, of course. Theirs is governed by God and the Bible), the rights of women (widespread disbelief at the very concept) and the relevance of the Bible and Koran to today’s situation (“But it’s the word of God!”). “Do my children look after me now I am old?” No! They are independent! That’s why I educated them! “Why don’t you help us? You are rich, you mzungus…” I tell them how much my mug of tea would cost in England. They are silenced in horror for a moment. I tell them the price of my boots. Shock!
These are conversations I have time and again, especially in Uganda with its deep rooted cultural belief that they must have more children. It turns out that the two fifty year old leaders of our crowded discussion – there are about thirty people crowded in front of me now (I feel not a jot of apprehension or threat, only human warmth, even if what I’m telling them isn’t really hitting home much) – the two men have eight and ten children. A woman trader, sitting nearby, slightly outside the discussion group – she’s a woman, after all – smiles and chuckles at my opinions of uncontrolled Ugandan men and the need for women to take over the reins. She’s right there with me, but she hasn’t the right to express her opinion if the mad mzungu (who’s only got two children anyway) isn’t there to encourage her laughter.
“Oh, but for us, woman is below children!” says one of the old-looking 50 year old men.
“Slightly above donkeys, then?” I quip. Everyone laughs happily. Even the women. It’s hopeless!
After an amusing hour, I gather my riding clothes, pay my 8 pence for the mug of tea, giving the cheerful trader the remainder of my change, to the laughter of the men, and her delight. I’ve tipped her 6p! “I’m leaving the country, so you should have my coins!”
No doubt they’ll discuss the stupidity of white men for a while after I leave. But I do little to change perceptions that they gather from the media, peddling the wealth and luxury of the West. And let’s face it, I AM the one who rides through their lives with all this material wealth – such that I can tip 6 pence to a tea trader in her ‘hotel’ – owned by a man, I have no doubt at all. Women own nothing here in Uganda, except the work.
My Mosquito and I bounce through endless small rural villages and past countless semi-vertical shambas. The sun’s out now – more the African landscapes I have come to know and love. Without sun the smile fades from Africa’s face.
Now I am looking down far, far to the northwest, across those vast blue plains, dotted with dormant volcanic pimples – the area of Karamajong that I set out to see last week, and failed.
Even now I can feel my foot swelling inside my big, supportive bike boot. It’s getting a lot of physiotherapy… The hospital told me to stand on a step and raise and lower my weight on the toes. It’s pretty much what I have to do, standing on the foot-pegs on my little bike, dancing this way and that over the roughest of roads, down virtual staircases of rock and dust, correcting and balancing, weaving and dodging. There’s a reason for my foolish grin! I’m having fun.
So, home to my East Africa base and warm welcomes again. Little Maria’s ‘Uncle Jon’an’ and Adelight’s Scrabble opponent has come home for a day or two to think about the next short safaris. It’s proving a different sort of journey this year, but I am consolidating friendships and families, and that’s a very African way of looking at life. A way that I am adopting more and more as the years pass.