It’s another bumper episode, I’m afraid. I am reliant on internet connections, and there’s none – as you’ll read – in Sipi. So, sit back and relax for some armchair travel, the good and the sometimes challenging. But that’s the travelling life..! Here’s my story of the past three weeks:
Generally, I reckon to get one thing done in a day in Africa. Better to hope for that than the frustration that sets in when trying to achieve anything that entertains any bureaucratic necessity… So it was with surprise that Thursday and Friday (Feb 18 and 19) went so efficiently. Wishing to return to Sipi, Uganda, to keep my promise to Alex and Precious, I needed another Coronavirus test to get across the border. Adelight phoned acquaintances in Kitale to enquire where I should go to get the test. “Oh, our machine is broken!” exclaimed a nurse friend. (‘Machine’? What machine is used for the PCR test?). None of the doctors’ surgeries – mainly private – carried out the test. In the end, I said, “I may as well ride to the border and ask the horse’s mouth, the medical officer of health…” On Thursday, I rode the 30 appallingly dusty miles, to be welcomed back by all the officials at the remote border post. “Their ‘machine’s’ not broken, the doctors are on strike!” proclaimed the medical officer.
“It’s so nice you all recognise me!” I commented to Juma, from Immigration. “But I suppose there aren’t many mzungus on motorbikes these days…”
“No, it’s only you. There was another mzungu about two months ago coming from Uganda by matatu, but now it’s just you!”
The medical officer said I must go to a hospital in Eldoret, the busy, scruffy city 50 miles down-country from Kitale.
On Friday I rode to Eldoret, a risky process on the main trans-East Africa highway that brings all the goods to Uganda and Rwanda from the coastal docks. It’s the top end of the road on which I chickened out of the ride to the coast ten days ago. Not quite so lethal, but not much fun. After two attempts on my life, I preferred to return by the longer route that curves across country away from the busy highway. Twenty kilometres longer and 102 speed humps in 85 kilometres, but not murderous.
“No, the man who does the tests is not here,” said a nurse whom I buttonholed.
“But I just rode the dangerous road from Kitale specifically to get tested!” I wailed in disappointment. A very helpful young male nurse took up my case. There was a man – on his phone contacts simply called ‘Philip Covid’ – at the general hospital who might help me. He phoned Philip Covid on my behalf, sent a photo of my passport to him and directed me to find the hospital in the very centre of the traffic-clogged mess of Eldoret.
Sometimes I quite enjoy the anarchy of African traffic. I am on a very manoeuvrable machine, better aware than all the boda-boda boys and can treat a ride in such conditions like a rather exhilarating computer game! Weaving and ducking, accelerating into gaps, ignoring every traffic rule of Kenya and all the European regulations inculcated in 43 years of riding mainly lawfully, I made my way to the centre of the city and the general hospital. I phoned ‘Philip Covid’ from the rocky car park. “You can’t miss me, I’m the only mzungu here.”
Philip and his two colleagues, Matthew and Daniel, were charming and efficient. In minutes the swab was taken in the car park: “We do it in an open space!” and we chatted in their office as Matthew filled in my details on his computer. “We’ll email the result tomorrow.” I paid the 5000 bob (£34) fee – which seemed to be a sum that Philip thought up, rather than a regular charge. “Will that be alright? The private clinics can charge up to 8000…” I didn’t tell him I paid £120 for a much lesser service in England. I gave the three men a further 600 shillings (about £4) and asked them to have a beer on me after duty. “Next time you come to Eldoret you must come and find us, and we will buy YOU a beer! We are so happy too see you enjoying yourself. Old men of your age just look after cattle here in Kenya! They can’t do what you are doing!” Always the wonder at my years.
I roared through a few side streets to the Immigration Office to get information about how to extend my visa, and was on my way back out of town by 1.15. I’d taken a book to read, even my toothbrush in case I was kept waiting all day in offices and maybe even overnight to achieve my business. Kenya can sometimes pull out the stops and has perhaps one of the best infrastructures in this part of Africa. I was on the road, away from the horrors of Eldoret, a city I try to avoid, and home by three o’clock. Philip Covid promised that I would receive the result on Saturday.
In Kitale I try to take a walk every afternoon, an hour or sometimes two. There are rural areas close by, down behind the house. People greet the mzungu as I walk. I excite the children. A couple of women are often milking their cows down there. A muscled young fellow, covered in lather, bathed naked in a stream one afternoon, just a big white smile over his shoulder in a completely lathered head, washing away the sweat from a hard day hacking at a large field with a mattock. Schoolchildren come from school. The greeting down here is, “I am fine!”, usually the reply to the well known salutation, “How are you..?” Education levels down in these hamlets are very low, and English little known. Men cut old trees, chain saws wielded without the slightest protection, not even goggles, chips flying, flip-flops and wellies, office trousers and fast rotating killer blades. The planks they are making from the freshly cut wood can almost be watched warping and twisting as they dry in the hot afternoon sunlight. A couple of crested cranes stilt-walk about a newly ploughed field, dipping like car window toys. Bright birds flit and flute, a flash of electric blue, a scrap of brilliant yellow, a dash of red breast. Two rodents scavenge at the side of the red dust track, unaware of my proximity for a moment. It’s peaceful – and I feel the sunlight and warmth in my bones, the relaxation, the strength from constant exercise, my posture. What will I do, I wonder as I walk, when I get too old to do this? It’s on its way; however I fool myself that I am invincible, I can’t delay old age. It’s inevitable. But here, in Africa, I don’t feel aware of it as I do at home. One of the secrets is being surrounded by young people. Of course I am: I’m already 10 years beyond average life expectancy here. Less than 4% of people make it beyond 65. I’m almost 72! This is as near eternal youth as I’ll find. “Most men of your age in Kenya can’t do more than care for their cattle.” Daniel said – as I took my Covid test so I can ride my motorcycle on the appalling 90 mile, rutted, rock-strewn trail around the mountain slopes to Uganda at the weekend.
It’s amusing how intrusive strangers can be in Africa: down in the fields a car stops – it actually carries the tree cutters, I later find. A face peers out of the driver’s window. “How OLD are you?” he asks in a manner that in Europe would be impolite, but here is just natural curiosity. I satisfy his enquiry. “You look younger… Thank you.” And they drive away without further comment, leaving me chuckling. I love curiosity in people. Why not ask what intrigues you? Why be polite and courteous if you’re interested in the answer?
It’s about 90 miles from Kitale to Sipi, of which perhaps 25 are tarred to date. The weather forecast for days – I’ve been watching it carefully – has been for rain on Sunday 21st, but then, on Saturday the rain symbols disappear and the prediction is just for cloud and 24 degrees, a fine temperature for my hard effort on this road. But on the day, it’s sunny most of the way, and if this is 24 degrees, then I’m a Dutchman. It’s HOT riding. I’m shading red with dust as I leap and dance on the little bike, sweating in my riding clothes, enjoying the journey as I enjoy few others in Africa. I ride in a chorus of excited children: “Mzunguuuu! Mzunguuuu!” waving and jumping up and down, running from their doors in glee. Not many of us pass this way: “There was a mzungu about two months ago,” says Juma, the immigration officer at the border. I look over his shoulder as he enters my details in a ledger. We are looking for my last exit to Uganda. I spot my signature near the bottom of the page. Since I passed through Suam’s remote border on January 8th, only eight vehicles have been registered in the ledger! Eight in over six weeks! Not surprising they all remember me at the border posts. I’m something of a celebrity.
It’s simple this time, my Covid test clutched in my hand. There’s a potentially edgy moment when the medical officer says, “Yes, but this is a photocopy. Where’s the original?” I have to explain that I had to ride 100 miles to get the test and actually, this is not just a photocopy but a photograph of the document taken with ‘Philip Covid’s’ camera in Eldoret, sent by Whatsapp to Adelight’s phone, shared to Rico’s phone and then emailed to me to take to a printer in Kitale town to make me these copies! The explanation is so intricate that he gives up and accepts the slightly out of focus print with grace. The important details: my passport number, the date and the word ‘negative’ are all legible.
They all know me at this border and I know all the intricacies. We’re soon done, with a few chats on the way. “You are done! You can go!” I’m in Uganda again. The woman police officer tells me she’s looking for a mzungu husband and asks if I’m interested? The same old half-joke that so many try. She pulls the log speared with six inch nails away from the track and I am free to ride the ruts and potholes away from the border post. Outside the gate – never closed since the hinges failed years back – I am instantly in the meagre outpost of Suam town. It exists only because of the border and is a collection of mean tin shacks and ugly concrete lock-ups painted in the lurid colours of mobile phone companies. The road, such as it is, is awful: all corrugations of dry mud, potholes and filth on the hill through the rough town. I accelerate away gratefully and head into Uganda. There’s some sort of habitation most of the way now alongside the track – rough shacks and mud and stick homes, small shambas of matoke bananas amongst waving eucalyptus. People everywhere, especially children, here where so many have ten and fifteen children, living on the very edge of visible poverty. Friendly though; constant waving and a thousand greetings will accompany me on the miles around the slopes of Mount Elgon.
Soon I wend my way through the biggest town en route, Bukwo. It has one of the worst ‘roads’ in Africa, far worse than anything you can imagine reading this. It’s a trials section: rocks, dust, steep slopes, debris and holes. It’s the somewhat informally planned town’s main street. They must vote for the wrong politicians here: this feels like a perceptible punishment of the townspeople, leaving their main thoroughfare in this condition. I stand up on the foot-pegs to make my way through the scruffy town, a layer of dust on everything, debris lining the track, rocky steps and hummocks; my wheels slewing left and right, the rear of my bike leaping up to bump my backside as my knees do their best to grip the sides of the seat. It’s exhilarating too, in its way. People stare, wave, laugh, call out. I’ve done this so much now that I can even sometimes take one hand off the bars to wave back! I reckon I’d make a trials rider after all my African experience.
The track climbs out of Bukwo, onto the best part of the ride. A mile or two on I’m battered but smiling as the road zigzags up a steep white rock hill, climbing quickly. A truck is stuck in a huge rut at a compromising angle. Its driver and assistant and a few hangers-on are looking bemused, wondering how to release it. It was trying to get up a big rock step and failed, obviously slipping back into the deep gulley that drainage has formed at the side of the trail. They’ll be here some hours. There’s just enough space for me to squeeze past, bouncing up the rocky step, wheel spinning; the men grinning and shouting encouragement that I can hear through my ear plugs. No one gets very phased or angry about these incidents on this appalling track. What’s the point? It’s obvious that now the authorities are building the new road – from the other end: we’ve still at least 35 miles to go to get to anything resembling a real road, and then it’ll just be graded loose earth – it’s obvious they’ve stopped maintaining this track. Problem is, it’ll be three or four years before the roadworks get as far as this…
On a small plateau, where the trail makes a big rocky loop, I stop to rest, enjoy the view, phone Rico and the family in Kitale to tell them I made it into Uganda, and to text Alex that I am now on my way. I drink some of my water, greet a woman in Sunday clothes who appears from nowhere, apparently on the way to nowhere, probably coming from some tin church of some self-proclaimed pastor on the slopes, hopefully feeling uplifted by the ranting and raucous hymn singing. Then Hudson stops; I’m never alone for long in Uganda. He’s on a 125 piki-piki, on his way to a photocopier in Bukwo, below us in the heat haze. He works for the forestry department and we discuss the fact that the fine forest through which this track wove its cool, shady way a few miles on, has been decimated and the wood sold to Kenya. It’s just stumps now and ugly. It was the best part of the journey three years ago. “We looked at taking them to court. It’s completely unsustainable, what they’ve done, but you know, with Ugandan laws and corruption…” His voice tails off at the impossibility of holding anyone to account in this desperately corrupt country. “They say they will replant, but we see no sign of it…” Hudson hopes, as do so many in this country reduced to poverty by bad governance and dishonourable politicians, that I can find him a sponsor to help him set up some project. I have to deflect these appeals constantly. We swap email addresses, for he’s an educated, decent sort of chap, but even as I write my address I know I will be parrying requests in day to come.
We part and I ride on, ricochetting and gambolling about the rocks and stones of the steep hills. There’s about five hours of this exercise. It’s not a lot better when I meet the road builders coming the other way, for then I need extreme concentration – in the light of many other calls on my attention: people waving, cattle wandering the earthy road, children shouting. The loose surface over the hard packed earth is even worse. It rolls about beneath my wheels, threatening to unseat me any time. The first few miles of it are on soft earth, and that’s horrible, my arms locked to control the weaving wheel. Finally, the last 25 kilometres to Kapchorwa are on the new tar – except where the unsmiling Chinese engineers are still constructing the bridges, where diversions have been ploughed through the surrounding fields. Even in Kapchorwa, the regional capital, another sprawling place of earthen embankments, concrete lock-ups, mobile company advertising and a few banks and offices lining broken red earth roads, the pain doesn’t end. They are now resurfacing the ten miles to Sipi through the impressive, sweeping hills. More loose surfaces and hold ups.
I arrive in Sipi exhausted. I’ve just undertaken about 60 or more miles of serious trail riding, in some places trials riding, the difference being, if you’re not a biker: trials riding is short sections of awkward terrain filled with technically challenging riding, where the competition is to get through the section without putting your feet to the floor, while trail riding is just plummeting along on unmade tracks – roughly what I’ve been doing most of the time since I left Kitale almost seven hours ago.
Wails of delight and Precious’s helicoptering arms announce my arrival. Alex is a little more restrained, but I can see his warm pleasure too. His sisters, Doreen and Helen are visiting with various children this afternoon. It’s a big reception. “Bring Jonathan a chair!” Alex calls to one of the children.
“Huh! I need more than THAT!” I exclaim, collapsing on the scant grass on my back. Everyone’s amused and starts to grip my arms and legs, pulling them to stretch me out to ease my pent up muscles. There’s great hilarity and I love the overflowing welcome that they all give so generously. I wonder if eastern Uganda really IS the friendliest place on Earth? It often feels that way. Desperately poor, not much ‘developed’, scratching an existence amongst some of Africa’s worst corruption, the second ‘youngest’ demography of the world, over-populated, poor infrastructure, with appalling pollution and even worse politics, its people are exceptional. High amongst my favourites.
Another proof of that emotional generosity and honesty comes in naming your child after a guest and taking that visitor as a family member. Having another Jonathan, ‘JB’ around is a bit confusing, but in a touching way. Now he’s often nicknamed ‘Beans’ by his parents. “Oh, people ask!” says Alex. “I have to explain that on the day he was born, Precious was cooking beans! Hahaha!”
It’s a pity the child is so terrified of the mzungu and breaks into wails, hiding behind his parents or sister whenever I approach… Not easy to bond with a two year old who screams when he sees me.
“OK, we are going to run a European worksite here!” I declared to Alex looking over his 1818 bar and coffee shop that is slowly developing, mainly with my sponsorship. I can see that the Ugandan workers he’s employed have little pride in their work and leave the workplace without cleaning up. It’s a shambles of shavings, dust and off-cuts. “They just want their money and go!” says Alex. So we started with an hour’s sweeping and tidying.
Our task – my task – is to decorate the quirky, twisted timbers of the upper level of his bar on stilts. Since I left, he’s had stone walls built to support the heavy structure. If you recollect, he started his project with much enthusiasm but the wrong way round. In effect he built the roof without considering the foundations! You don’t build a stilt structure in Africa and rely on the tree trunks for strength: the termites will soon eat the supports… As, indeed, they have in places already in the two years he has been building. The stone walls are an improvement, although I can see they have been constructed by ‘masons’ without knowledge of the basic mechanics of building, of bonding courses and creating strong corners – but it’s a lot stronger than the structure that relied chiefly on hope and prayer.
Carpentry is crude. There are few tools, and what there are are coarse and the timber available is little more than firewood. There’s not a power tool within miles, just old bendy saws much sharpened and a panga (cutlass) for shaping and ‘planing’ wood to shape. Wood is straight from the tree – well ‘straight’ in one sense only. Twisted, bark-covered posts resembling a corkscrew, chewed with a panga to make a door frame. A four inch nail is used as a chisel or drill to make a hole for the door lock. The lock is nailed into the door with three inch nails, the protruding ends bent and hammered into the varnished front of the door. It’s pitiful.
We are going to create our own paints from local earth. The only paints available here, and in much of Africa, are crude colours, many made in China or by an off-shoot of some multinational company here in Uganda. They are quite expensive – which is why most buildings remain unpainted stained mud and concrete, except in the lurid colours sponsored by mobile phone companies and the ubiquitous villains of the Coca Cola Corporation. I have introduced the old scenery making technique of using PVA for just about everything. We create, very dirtily, a blend of PVA, water and earth, enthusiastically sifted through old mosquito netting by me and a group of cheerful small children. Owing to the corrupt politics and the recent election no child is in school. No one can explain why, but all schools are closed – this in a country struggling with low levels of education. One useless, ancient president, ‘advised’ by a mafia-style coterie of corrupt fat men, has this country in its grips. They care not a jot for their people, only for personal wealth and advancement. It’s amongst the most shameful regimes on a continent infamous for failed and failing politics. Many – probably most – support the ‘mzee’ (Old Man) Museveni, now seated back in power in Kampala, wearing his ridiculous trademark big-brimmed hat, but do not rationalise that one crook making all life’s decisions for now 35 years institutionalises the system. Where there has been no opportunity for dissent for so long, power is grabbed by the ruthless and no new systems are able to flourish. This poor country is in such a mess. I feel so sorry for earnest, honest young people like Alex, with his dreams trapped in this downward spiral, his country hijacked by the ruthless dishonesty and self-interest of a few. It’s in the interests of those men to keep their people uneducated. They’re easily manipulated.
We sourced three different shades of soil: the dark red earth from the foot of the 1818 bar, red earth from the bottom of the deep pit now dug for a new latrine at the bottom of the property, and an orangey soil that Alex spotted nearby. A bucket of each was broken up and sifted by me and my team of small – out-of-school – helpers. Then we mixed big cooking pots of our colours. I’d bought paintbrushes in Kitale – Kenya has much better products and more availability than the dirt cheap items available in rural Uganda. Sometimes Kenya and Uganda seem far apart in infrastructure and development for such near neighbours.
Exposing myself to this sort of life, that led by billions around the world beyond the privileged confines of our riches, is self-illuminating. It’s not comfortable and there’s much I dislike about it, and then despise myself for my complaints. My hosts, Alex and Precious, treat me as a very special guest, making life as easy and agreeable as they know how. But they can’t alter the physical deprivation of their lives. They buy me pineapples, cook extravagant foods, make quantities of fresh passion juice, look after me as a ‘slebrity’, pander to my whims and are deeply respectful of all the help I provide them.
But they can’t take away the MUD, the dust, the lack of gutters, the basic wood and corrugated iron pit-latrine, the smoke from their cooking fire around which we sit of an evening, our feet in brown puddles. I wash in cold water in a bowl on the cement floor, then must paddle about cold dirty water on the concrete floor and carry the wet dust to bed. Frequently I must eat with my fingers, and I abhor grease on my skin (my mother told me how I frequently washed my hands as a child – odd behaviour!). The rat in the roof thatch of my round room scratches and scampers overhead in the night. The roof leaks in heavy rain: it needs a new layer of grass. Working with Chinese paintbrushes that fall to pieces. Watching the carpenter use a panga (machete) as a planer, everything crooked, not a wood screw in sight, using firewood to build a bar, nails to fix hinges and door locks. Smoke in my eyes. The smell of smoke on all my clothes. Ants and mosquitoes. Seeing nothing in the dark, for there is only basic electric light: a dim bulb in my room but none where we eat by the fire in the kitchen yard. The massacre of ancient trees, the visual pollution, the unawareness of natural beauty. Screaming children, barking dogs, crowing cockerels. The plastic and garbage in every hedge and field; total lack of awareness of what’s happening to our planet by their forced exploitation – and the ballooning population, just about the youngest average age of any country in the world: 15.7 years…
And they can’t take away all these petty discomforts for they lack the one commodity required… Their own lives are short and compromised by lack of money, so much compounded by poor education and corrupt politicians who contrive to make this once well developed country into a basket case in Africa.
But of course, I am here for the human warmth that flourishes despite all the deprivations. We in the West may have the material wealth, but we no longer can claim to have the emotional generosity that eastern Uganda – and so much more of Africa that I know – can give me. The wealth of the world is so poorly distributed, Africa always suffering at the bottom of the heap, exploited for its resources, improperly rewarded for its efforts; fragile politics meddled with by the big players: China, USA, Russia; an unsophisticated, easily manipulated market for uncaring multinationals.
But where else am I greeted with such excitement by a million children? Where do I enjoy the curiosity of so many amongst whom I travel? Where do people force me to eat food I know would be their own supper? Where do people with next to nothing give me what they have?
As I write, Precious breaks into peals of laughter as I catch her trying to secrete a second chapati in my breakfast ‘rolex’ – a fried chapati with a fried egg rolled inside. She is incorrigible. With a vast appetite herself, she tries to impose one on me! Generous to a fault, she may be, but in African terms I eat the quantity of little Jonathan, ‘Beans’, ‘JB’ – who is two and a quarter years old.
It’s salutary to remember that this isn’t how the other half lives: it’s how the other nine tenths live…
The frustrations of life in Africa – Uganda especially – are sometimes almost overwhelming, compounded by my subsequent guilt at feeling angry and irritable when Ugandans suffer this daily. I’m here expecting things to be done as they are in Europe and exasperated that people don’t question why they do things the way they do, when they’ve never known anything different as I have.
For arcane bureaucratic reasons I can’t extend my East Africa visa that gives me access to Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. And all visa business for Kenya must now be done online. Try that in rural Uganda. There’s no internet connection in Sipi except at an expensive hotel. By good fortune, Alex’s cousin Barbara works there. Alex’s junior brother Nic walks with me the fifteen minutes to the hotel. “It’s not working,” says Barbara. Because no one’s paid the bill. Kindly, Barbara says she’ll go and buy ‘data bundles’ for her phone; Nic is of an age to believe that we can connect my iPad that way. Barbara walks off to the village centre; Nic and I gaze at the view of northern Uganda spread dramatically below us. Twenty minutes pass. Barbara brings her phone and Nic fiddles and clicks at the screen. At last we get a connection, but it’s not strong enough to load the enormous Kenya Immigration website. Nic battles the technology: I fume – for forty more minutes, before I suggest we give up and I must ride to Kapchorwa, ten miles up the part-finished road, to find connections. We walk home, I change and ride away. Alex joins me and we ride to the hotel where he used to work in Kapchorwa. It has internet. But that doesn’t work well enough either; I spend another half hour waiting for connections. We decide to go to the main post office: it has an internet cafe.
Still my iPad won’t connect. About four hours have gone now. Another one and a half to go… I have to use one of the old computers at a station in the back of the post office. I haven’t used an old Microsoft machine, keyboard and mouse in years. I keep hitting the wrong keys, doing things wrong, getting angry. Well, it’s a long story of irritation and complex bureaucratic demands that make no sense. I fill in the ten page form. I tick the box: ‘staying with friends’, give the address and details. Six pages later the website demands a copy of my hotel booking… Just one instance of how going ‘online’ makes it all so easy! I even have to give the names of my father and mother – dead 25 and 10 years. I need a passport photo, a picture of the outside and inside of my passport, details of my incoming and outgoing tickets – I’ve already filled in the portion about entering by road, by Suam border… I goes on and on. Thank goodness Mark is here at the post office. He’s in charge of the internet section and very charming. Without him I couldn’t have coped. Finally, after hours of purgatorial illogicality he prints out a copy of the form I have filled in and a receipt for the £35 I have paid. The copy is in B&W; the website demands that I bring a colour print to the border. There’s no colour printer in Kapchorwa, I’d have to go to Mbale, another 30 miles away in the wrong direction.
And still, until I get to the Kenyan border on Wednesday or Thursday, I have NO IDEA if it’s worked. I am determined to go back through Suam now: they know me, and Juma, the immigration officer, has been friendly and helpful. If anyone will help extend my visa, Juma will.
By now all pleasure has left the day. I am seething with impatience and frustration. Yet maybe I have achieved something? Or Mark at the post office has. I give him probably a day and a half’s salary (£4) in gratitude. But I am ashamed of the petty tantrums I have displayed. I come here with my European sensibilities and complain that poverty-stricken Uganda frustrates my needs and makes me angry. It’s just the way it is in this unequal world.
Child safety takes on different attitudes here. A twelve foot deep hole for the new latrine is totally unfenced; Keilah, aged three and a half, wanders about with the carving knife; children play on the muddy track and grassy verges of the lane that passes Rock Gardens – despite the dangerously ridden boda-bodas who have little regard for anyone. The small children dance by the open fire at night, play with burning sticks, are constantly smothered in mud, bare footed and eat with muddy fingers. They sit, four and five up, on boda-bodas ridden by untrained idiots; are blathered in filth; play on unsafe heaps of rock; are barefooted all day on mud, the occasional nail, razor blade and vicious thorns. They do, though, grow up understanding risk…
No child has toys. They make their own playthings from debris and rubbish. Lorries from oil containers, the wheels from their tops or cut from discarded sandal soles. They play with sticks and mud, sand and stones, old plastic bags and tins, bald motorbike tyres as hoops. While we worked, they took brushes and old election posters for their own paintings, mainly of material wealth: cars, TVs and helicopters.
In this enormously over-populated nation, with an average of seven children to every woman – and god knows how many to the men – they never have any lack of playmates.
How do I convince Precious that my appetite is about one tenth what she demands? Presenting me with a serving dish quantity of fish stew, sufficient for three people, four potatoes, a large bowl of rice, a lump of matoke enough for three, and greens for three meals, if anything makes my appetite reduce. I eat more than I wish and she’s then upset with me for ‘eating nothing’… In her culture, from western Uganda, it’s an insult. “Hah! A woman can dive-vorce her husband for not eating her food! I am aaangry!”
We worked eight long days decorating the 1818 coffee shop and restaurant, as it’s now called. I’m proud of the colours we made: several different bright brown colours from local earth and PVA and black from charcoal and PVA. We bought one litre of commercial white emulsion paint for £1.65 (!). We have painted the whole interior for less than £9.50! Alex reckons that had we bought the lurid commercial paints, we’d have paid £50 at least – for Alex a vast amount. His salary for 30 days on-call as manager at the hotel was £60… Now he knows how to mix these cheap pigments, I foresee an outbreak of coloured buildings in his compound, and maybe an increase in sales of what everyone thinks is mere wood glue at the rather basic Sipi building supplies shop. “We just lack knowledge…” complains Alex.
Many visitors come. Word goes round the village that the ‘mzee mzungu’ is painting in traditional local style. It’s a wonder. Well, of course the tradition has been reinvented by this scenery designer’s imagination. I am thanked fulsomely for my efforts by all the visitors.
Above the windows I have painted a frieze of local activities: boda-bodas, bicycles, women carrying babies, local houses, matoke trees and eucalyptus, men drinking komek, the local brew, cows, and children playing. On the end wall I have sign-written (not too badly) ‘Welcome to 1818 coffee shop and restaurant’, and above that painted the view from the road to Suam, with northern Uganda and its volcanic pimples spreading into the far distance: a day spent standing on a plastic table and stools, using paint from dirt and glue.
The last day of the month was a day off, Sunday. Alex and Nic took me on another lengthy hike – I guess about 15 miles or more. The trouble with living on mountains, as in Sipi and Kessup, is that every metre you go down, you must eventually struggle up again. So fifteen miles seems like many more, especially when the altitude differences are 1500 feet or more. We descended direct from Sipi’s single street, with its shacks and lock up shops. Here the village perches on a ridge, falling away 100 yards on either side. Our path wriggled through big rocks down the steep mountainside into one of the large valleys beneath the escarpment. Away to the north and west, yet lower, stretches a huge vista of northern Uganda, an endless plain reaching to hazy distance. I’ve ridden over big areas of it in previous years, sweating in its inferno. Up here the heat is tempered by our near 2000 metre altitude, but the sun is fierce and walking shaded only by matoke trees and a few remaining deciduous survivors of the depredations of a poor community and their short term economy. It’s distressing to see how most large trees, that took a hundred years to grow, have been relentlessly harvested for charcoal. The few that remain are shapeless from the culling of so many branches, now stunted and distorted. Few new trees are planted, and those too are cut for their weak timber. Only the African weed, eucalyptus, that drains the soil of water and nutrients in its speedy growth, provide shade and soil retention here. People need money – to provide for their huge families of multitudinous children. They need money NOW. There’s no education of environmental damage. No explanation of how they mortgage the futures of their numerous offspring by this short-term need. But who’s to explain? The government itself relies on short-termism. It’s endlessly taking staggering debts from China, selling its future resources and land to a nation that cares nothing for African livelihood or the planet. It wants ever more resources, to plunder the planet for financial gain, with no regard for anything else. THIS is probably the largest challenge and problem facing this continent: its selling of its independence to Chinese overlords. In a couple of decades those canny players will begin to call in their debts. Africa will have nothing with which to pay, except its land and natural resources. It’s a long game, cleverly manipulated and of frightening consequences. Abandon all hope of environmental change now China is the main secretive force in much of the world.
A small instance is plastic torches. Petty but illustrative. When I was here in January, on our very long hike we ended up staggering up the escarpment in the dark. I have poor night vision and wouldn’t have made it but for the fact that Nic wore pale trousers and somewhere at the bottom of the climb, Alex sent a relative to purchase me a torch. It cost 20 pence from a local rural kiosk. It came complete with three of those small silver button batteries and worked brilliantly – literally. It had an LED bulb and lasted for weeks. Being European, I eventually bought three new button batteries for it: they cost £1… A new torch would have been 20 pence. These people need light. Chinese factories have identified the profit from cheap production and huge sales. As I walked today, everywhere I saw the glow of discarded florescent plastic torches, the plastic and the poisons from their batteries ploughed into the soils on which Ugandans depend for life. All the rest of the short lived plastic products from China ends in the same waste system: the soil and water courses. Sorry, but the future is grim, however assiduously you, reader, recycle your bottles…
In my years of travel on this continent I have constantly seen signboards: ‘Furnished by the people of USA’, ‘Supported by funds of the European Union’, ‘Charity of the United Kingdom’, ‘Aided by the Republic of France’ etc. I see Oxfam, World Vision (USA), Save the Children, Water Aid; charities big and small; often schools named for individual sponsors.
I have yet to see evidence of a single a Chinese charitable body…
The sun burns fiercely down. It’s about 30 degrees today. Hot for walking. We are one degree north of the Equator. We walk on our own shadows. Countless people we pass make personal allusions – in their own tongue, but Alex laughs and responds with equal quips. They are commenting on why a mzungu should be walking so far, in the sun, where no mzungu has been seen before. They make personal observations about my age, my hair, my white beard – whatever takes their interest. They don’t see it as rude; it’s merely factual (as they see it) and open curiosity. Alex laughs at many more jokes than he translates!
We pass a couple of remote villages. Education is low here. There are far more ‘churches’ than schools. It’s Sunday. We hear ranting self-emboldened ‘pastors’ in a dozen mud and zinc ‘churches’. Precious attends one; Alex is cynical. Maybe it’s one of the reasons I get along so well with this intelligent young man: he questions accepted norms in his society. Not many do in emasculated Uganda. He knows about the corruption, desperate pollution, the way ‘Big Men’ manipulate the ignorant – how the ‘pastors’ are in it for the money. Precious is much less worldly aware. She’s simply educated and listens to the nonsense these ‘pastors’ spout. She’s told us some of it, accepting it as truths – that Alex and I refute. Much of it’s not even morally justifiable, yet these self-proclaimed sermonisers have wide influence in these poorly educated, rural communities. Precious and her children sometimes spend the whole of Sunday at a mud and zinc ‘church’ on a nearby hill. There are constant calls for donations – and no accountability whatsoever. As we walk, we hear drumming and singing and ranting. The singing is that high pitched, strident wonder that is so African in nature. A drum keeps the beat.
Branching downhill through newly ploughed fields and stumps of mature trees, we visit one of Alex and Nic’s aunts. In families of this scope there are always relations everywhere. She makes us tea as we sit gratefully in the shade of her matoke bananas. A young calf comes to have its chin rubbed by the sentimental mzungu. Mama Tarito (Precious is frequently called Mama Keilah, after her firstborn) obviously likes animals: the calf, a young cat, a couple of dogs, many chickens and a couple of ducks all coexist comfortably on her earthy ledge and in and out of her mud houses. It’s peaceful and bucolic, the breeze rustling the matoke leaves as Alex exchanges news with his aunt. The tea restores me. I needed it. We’ve walked many miles and still have that enormous escarpment looming above. Mama Tarito is thrilled to have a mzungu guest and after an hour she leads us back up the fields and gives Alex directions to a steep path that will climb back out of the lowlands.
Nic is walking in his socks by now. His shoes give him discomfort and his feet are as hard as most Africans’. We puff and struggle upwards. We’ll be climbing for the next hour and a half, always another hill above us; comments called from every homestead, children running excitedly to view the rare mzungu. I really do travel as a ‘slebrity’ here. Young boys race down one hill on homemade go carts of matoke wood, shouting with glee. The hills rise relentlessly, but there’s a breeze as the afternoon progresses, and the views – when we get out of the endless waving matoke – are pretty spectacular, back over half Uganda below.
On the last – apparently endless – hill, we are followed by a growing band of small children. It’s good to have Alex, now a keen photographer, along with his phone camera. If I pull mine out of the bag, it causes chaos, but they accept Alex and his phone easily and he gets some funny pictures of the numerous children excitedly touching my hair and white skin. “They say your hair is hard and spiky. Like a pig’s!” laughs Alex as he translates.
It’s after five when we get home, seven hours after we set out. I am light-headed from fatigue and lack of food and liquid. We found a couple of village spring-water supplies en route and I drank some sort of ‘herbal tonic’ (said on the bottle – plastic – to clean the fallopian tubes, amongst other claims) but we haven’t eaten. I’m quite wobbly.
We sit companionably by the fire later in the evening. It’s full moon about now and the nights are bright. Mild tonight, we sit and chat. It’s difficult to describe how fully accepted I am, as a family member. Only little JB is wary, although in the dark he accepts me better. He gets excited looking at photos on my screen, even forgetting his fear enough to lean on my knee. Daylight is different: he still remains apart, although it’s improved in the week I’ve been here. The wails of fear are reduced.
“How will I send Keilah to look after you?” asks Precious. “To cook for you and keep your house clean.” Women’s work of course, but Precious means it kindly. She’s concerned about me going back to England. “Stay here!” she demands, not understanding the bureaucracy of Africa. “Stay with us! We will look after you! Don’ go to England and be alone. No one to come in your house! Haah!” Alex chuckles at her naiveté. He has a concept of just what’s involved: the visas, virus tests, flights. But they’re generous thoughts from this warm-hearted young woman. I hesitate to explain the lack of generosity with which the bureaucrats of my own country would receive Keilah. Yet I have complained so long about the officialdom of these countries, who didn’t even invent this appalling bureaucracy. We did, because we didn’t trust black men…
It’s late – all of nine o’clock. The weariness of the long walk is getting to Alex now. Nic says goodnight and goodbye: he’s off to Kampala in the morning, back to his high school. It’s actually opening. As for me, I am reduced to extreme exhaustion, keeping polite with effort. It’s time to retire to my round house, ‘Jonathan’s House’. We’ll sleep well tonight.
Nic was home two days later, his school still closed.
One morning the milkman brings a story from a distant village. He comes with fresh milk in a twenty litre container and dispenses it for sale. It’s fresh from cows in his area. He explains his lateness this morning: his community has been searching the forests for a man who stole a four month old baby last night. Old beliefs persist in uneducated rural areas (sometimes just as powerful in the big cities too) that making sacrifice, even in modern Africa, will bring good fortune to your project. Or it may be for cult worship or black magic. Witch doctors still exist, although little is said of such things. Precious exclaims over and over at the tabloid horror of this abduction, seen by the mother as she cooked, the man chased into the forest. “Can such things happen in your country?” Alex asks.
“Very occasionally, yes, but it’s a HUGE media circus when it happens. It’s in the news for years! Years!” I think of Soham and the McCanns (the names still in my head, what? 15, 20 years later?)
“Here, the witch doctors, they are still there… A witch doctor who asks for the head for his evil will be RICH! And Big Men, when they build a big building, sometimes they still believe that sacrifice will bring riches. The mother won’t see her baby again.”
Beneath the surface, some of the evils of old Africa still exist. Even in 2021, with all those fake pastors…
On the fourteenth day I must return to Kenya. My Covid certificate runs out today. It’s the 4th of March, Thursday. A gloriously warm, sunny day. It’s hot riding the roughest of roads, but it’s still my favourite in East Africa.
I leave Sipi amidst the waves and hugs of my family here. Precious waves until I reach the corner of the red track and turn away at last from the home where I am so welcome. I’m really regarded as a family member, a father figure. Precious’s big mattress-like hug says it all and Alex’s sincerity conveys much of what they feel. I know I am their only sponsor – they would have been in great difficulties this last year without my generosity. We all accept that, but I know instinctively that were our positions reversed, they’d be looking after me – just as Precious imagines sending Keilah to look after me in my old age! I’m investing a lot of my money in their future to try to make them independent. I know Alex will honour my commitment. If he can, he will make a success of his small venture, his coffee shop and restaurant. 1818.
Uganda has become such a basket case of a country, with its politics and lack of empowerment of its peoples. It’s run by a cartel of crooks with no care for its charming people. This could be such a wonderful country: it has fine scenery and friendly people; it’s full of smiles and welcomes strangers. It’s one of the most cheery places I have visited on this continent that fascinates me so much with its warmth and spirit. But it’s a mess, and the mess is getting worse as people watch the poor examples from above and cohesion and discipline reduce. What a terrible shame. One of my favourite places in the world, reduced to a shambles by its rulers. Returning to Kenya is like a return to order – yet Kenya is hardly a paragon of logicality and rationality itself, but the infrastructure is infinitely more efficient than its wayward neighbour.
The Chinese road builders are advancing quite fast, at least as an earth road, from Kapchorwa to Suam border. There are huge amounts of earth to move and diggers work at the big red embankments, villagers in large, idle bands watching the redistribution of their old vistas. For some reason, roads here are built on the scale of motorways. Why, when there’s so little traffic? Now they are facing the biggest challenge, the parts of the topography where the road will have to be carved along the steep mountainside.
Well, I buck and ride the rough road towards the east. It’s sunny and hot. I’m more tired by the ride than usual today. I’m not riding very well, maybe because my attention is so much distracted by the expansive views on such a glorious day. I always sense when my riding ability is compromised like this; then it takes a bit of self control to slow down and concentrate better. But it’s difficult to ignore the spectacular views on a day like this when I reach the part of the track that is carved from the hillsides. I stop to take yet another photo. A boda-boda stops nearby, obstructing my picture, inquisitive what the mzungu is doing in the middle of nowhere. Actually, this part is just about the only ‘middle of nowhere’ en route from Kapchorwa to Suam. The inclines are too steep for much agriculture so there’re only a few scattered grass-roofed round huts and some matoke trees. Their shambas are tedious climbs up or down the slopes, but people colonise wherever they can: they have to in this vastly populated country. The grass roofs make the scenery even more fine for a touring mzungu. I ask the boda-boda rider what the area is called. I told Alex I’d find out as this is the view I painted for him on the end wall of 1818 this week. The boda rider doesn’t speak English, but he comprehends my question. It’s Kabelyo, he says. I must remember to tell Alex. I text him the name. He replies, ‘Yes, meaning place of elephants. Nice name with meaning.’ It’s a long time since elephants coexisted with all these numerous Ugandans. The track seems busy today, for no apparent reason. There are scattered boda-bodas weighed down by multiple passengers and huge sacks of produce, wide bundles of sticks or planks of wood, a settee – out here in the sticks… Perhaps the end of the dry season, which will come soon, although it appears to be late this year, is causing the extra traffic? Harvest to be carried on the small Chinese motorbikes and a few lumbering small trucks, loaded high with people and sacks, bouncing and creeping the roughness if the trail.
Maybe I should have stopped for tea? But I am anxious about my visa still. For some illogical reason it keeps me riding towards Suam, where I’ll find out if all the frustrations of the ghastly online application have borne any fruit at all. I ride on again.
Then comes the steep winding white hill down to Bukwo with its appalling town road, the worst section of this hard track. I stop and drink some of Precious’s passion fruit juice from my water bottle and gaze at the view towards Kenya and Mount Elgon, beneath a slate grey cloud – impressive. I won’t be coming back to Uganda this year, whatever the visa result. I’d need another Uganda visa, another Kenya visa and a Covid test. I don’t have the patience or resolve to go through all that! I hope I can come back in a year or so. I feel such closeness to my small family here, struggling to be independent. Funny how these contacts are made by chance and maintained by instinct. Gazing over scruffy Bukwo, I reflect that if I hadn’t come this way in 2017 and sought a place to sleep off my exhaustion from the wonderful/ diabolical track round the mountain, I’d have missed out on the friendship and love of my Ugandan family. I looked at various guest houses in Sipi and dismissed them all for one reason or another; then I spotted a sign to a more remote one, a kilometre and a half from the road on grass-lined paths, and there I pulled in to a rough place and was welcomed by Precious, terrified by my appearance, red with dust and deeply weary. The view was fine, the room basic but prepared with unusual sensitivity: the fabrics were cheap but creative, the decoration the best that could be managed on a pathetically small budget. Instinct attracted me to Precious. Local bush telegraph quickly told Alex a stranger was at his house and he came. Instantly, I accepted his integrity and charm. I stayed. I returned later in that trip. We kept in contact. I gained family in Uganda.
Perhaps if I’d been able to stay another week, little JB would have accepted me? He’d stopped wailing and running away by the time I left, waving me away with a smile from a discrete distance. Keilah had started smiling, expressions that lit up her small face and make her pretty and appealing. Little JB had started to come closer and even let me wash his head after Precious shaved it with my beard trimmer. He loved to look at photos, particularly of himself, on my iPad, screeching in childish delight. It was looking at photos that made Keilah bond with me a couple of years ago: the magic of having a camera that displays the picture just taken. A big step forward in my travels, for I can turn the apparatus about and show them their smiles; children love that. It makes me many small friends.
I bounce down through the last outpost of Suam, people staring as I pass. It’s not a road, just a wide rutted area lined with shacks and lurid shops painted in the livery of the mobile phone companies. What will happen when the road – one day – reaches this back of beyond? Then the fine one-stop border post that’s planned, an artist’s impression of which Juma showed me on his phone? Now it’s still just the dust and dirty shack buildings of the smallest border I know in Africa; me the eighth non-local vehicle registered as passing in over six weeks.
Harison, the Medical officer on the Uganda station, greets me like and old friend, writes down my Covid certificate details and stamps it with yesterday’s date. He hasn’t changed the stamp as no one’s passed since yesterday at this international border. He stamps it again. A local drunk tells me he’s in charge of the post and ‘guides’ me to customs. Another useless form that no one will ever read is stamped; then my passport. So far so good. I am out of Uganda.
Down over the crippled bridge, most of the railings gone into the trickle of river below where twenty small naked children frolic and shout at the rare mzungu, mere ruts for the track, and up to the twisted gate that defines Kenya’s border. Now what?
All the effort and frustration of my new visa application comes to nought. Helpful, sympathetic Juma isn’t on duty… The only step forward is that Rogers, the officer taking my details, staples the receipt to the printed form I spent 45 minutes getting printed in colour in Kapchorwa this morning. I’m no further forward. His boss dismisses me: “We cannot process this here. We are in the bush! You must go to Eldoret, or go to a cyber cafe in Kitale and print out the new visa.”
There’s no evidence of a new visa to print out… When I get home and check, the complex website tells me my ‘status’ is still ‘not read’. I still have no visa. “Well,”says Rico, “now you know why I have been trying for 12 years to regularise my ‘status’!” Just as well my previous visa – the one that’s non-extendable – is still valid. Without that, I guess I’d be waiting at Suam for days. Rogers stamps my old visa. “Go to Eldoret. There it will be simple!” Yeah… I bet.
The road home is still thick with dust. In a year or two it’ll be a tar road to the one-stop border. Now the Chinese machines plough and dig, dust everywhere. It’s horrible, but a shower and beers await at journey’s end in Kitale. A real shower, not the bowl of cold water on the floor that I’ve used for the past 11 days.
Kitale town centre is in chaos too. Another new road, and some day perhaps the Chinese railway, is being constructed right through town. An area 150 yards wide, mainly shacks and informal commercial sprawl, has been demolished and cleared. Now a tractor with a trailer of sugar cane – like the one that brought down the power line across the road to Rico and Adelight’s house and caused another two day outage – has broken down in the narrowest part of the earth diversion. The ill-disciplined tailback is long, so I take off onto the red earth at the side and dodge down a bumpy dust alternative, for I know the town well now. Soon I am at home, filthy, exhausted and frustrated by the visa business. But my welcome’s warm as always. I just hope we can sort out a short extension here, until after Easter at least. Everyone at home in gloomy, incarcerated England is emailing me: ‘Stay where you are if you can! There’s nothing to return to here!’
On Friday, Rico engages his friend, John, at Immigration in Eldoret. He seems to be the one efficient, honest employee of the organisation. Maybe he can help. “They gave you wrong information at Suam,” he says. “You will need to go back.” He sounds organised and I trust him. He’s been helping Rico with his ‘status’ for a year or more, since Rico met him when he was stationed at Suam. We SMS him my application number. He’s on the case. We wait… We do a lot of that in Africa.
Stop press news, as I go to upload this story later on Friday afternoon, the 5th of March. John says I must go to Eldoret on Monday, to the regional immigration office, where they will endorse my visa. “What visa?” I might have asked, but he sounds believable. I’ll give him my trust. If they DO allow my request, I shall return after Easter, adding around a further three weeks to my freedom of movement and happy activity in Africa… Monday will tell. Inshallah…