EAST AFRICA 2021-2022 – EPISODE FOUR

MY UGANDAN FAMILY

The Aunties’ visit

The loosely called ‘road’ that connects my two East African families was one of my favourites in all Africa, with its dramatic trail riding and views into half northern Uganda from its mountain shoulders, the hot, hazy northern lowlands reaching to infinity, punctuated by the pimples of ancient volcanoes. It was friendly too: an avenue of excited children calling, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” and ripples of waving hands. Not many mzungus go this way – for many years, not many vehicles at all. It was only passable with tenacity and suitable off-road machines, or local vehicles battered beyond caring.

Soon it’ll be boring tarmac. Difficult terrain…

But for two years now, the Chinese have been busy building a debt-sodden highway across the fabulous scenery. Most of the excitement’s not there any more, and the old rocky trail is a mess of red dust, broken rocks, huge bulldozers and a livid red scars across the mountainsides. Now I must slither and drift through red dust, inches thick, for 40 kilometres and then cruise on wide flat featureless tarmac for the other 100. Villages have been ripped apart to push through the new expanses of tar. The rough, rugged trail riding pitches and features are gone – with the sense of satisfaction and thrill. Soon there’ll be a six metre high bridge and new international one-stop border offices at little, remote Suam border, where the ragged colonial bridge for now still rattles over the trickle below, the date 1956 stamped on its remaining concrete post. In a month or two even that will be gone. Only one small satisfaction remains: I am still the only mzungu through the post this year.

One thought occurs, however: maybe this is a good thing for this old African biker? ‘At my age’ I’m not really supposed to be doing this sort of adventure riding – not that I care a jot how I am ‘supposed’ to behave – but the road should be complete and smooth easy tarmac by the time the 75 year old Mosquito rider requires it… That could be an advantage, I suppose – although the 75 year old would probably find MUCH more satisfaction in the 90 mile rugged trail ride it used to be!

*

So now I arrive in Sipi reasonably fresh, ready for the onslaught of welcome at Rock Gardens, the idiosyncratic guest house/ beer garden and restaurant I am helping Alex and Precious to develop, its name inspired by Rock Cottage in far off Harberton. I ride the last kilometre down red earth tracks, knowing that they are waiting. The gardens are now fenced by bamboo and a new thatched gate has been erected. It’s beginning to look professional: I’ve seen a lot of these gates in South Africa, where tourism is big business and usually white-owned. Here it’s a bit more homespun: the quality of timber and tradesmen limits what’s possible.

Alex, grinning widely, swings the crooked gate open: Precious comes running, ululating with delight (she thinks I am so old, that every time she says goodbye, she’s convinced I’ll never make it back!) and throws her not inconsiderable bulk at me, such that I almost fall. Little Keilah, who has now grown to a delightful, pretty five year old, launches herself like a torpedo at me. Jonathan, nicknamed JB, who calls himself Jonathanbean Cheptai, hangs back, reluctant; the mzungu still a bit frightening – but that changes over the next three or four days. I am welcome home.

‘Jonathan’s House’, round and thatched, is decorated with blooms from the slowly developing gardens, towel folded into fans by Precious, decorated with nasturtiums and marigolds, from seeds I brought from Devon, as if in a big Kampala hotel, where this young couple trained and met. It’s basic but charming: the bathroom just a rough cement extension with a plastic bowl, jerrycan of water and an old curtain. The bed is locally made from tree trunks; the sheets once very expensive – wonderful linen sheets long ago loved and laundered in Europe.

In the evening Alex makes a fire and we chat and catch up. I’m so fond of these two, and now their cheerful children too. Keilah has gained confidence since last year, and is now chattering like any five year old. She’s bright, despite the long school closures. Little JB repeats everything she says; they are close companions. JB slowly warms to his mzungu grandfather, after we kick a bottle about together and run races across the garden.

The weather is poor: there’s rain around. It shouldn’t be here at this time of year, but the whole planet is in disorder now. On the second night we have torrential rain. Recently, Alex had Jonathan’s House rethatched. It looks fine.

At 3.00am I’m awoken by splashes on my face… I quickly see that my room is like a shower bath. Drips cascade everywhere. The thatch just doesn’t work! With my head torch, I scurry about, showered by cold drips, packing my belongings into my pannier bags and shoving them beneath the plastic table. Water’s running down the walls and puddling the floor. Only in the very centre of the room does the shower leave a dry patch into which I can pull the big bed and continue the night sleeping wrong way round on a dry quarter of it. Poor Alex, such disappointment that the new thatch is useless. So many set backs. So much hope and ambition. His only support a mzungu who respects his integrity, tenacity and determination.

*

In January I come to Sipi expecting sunshine and brightness. I travel light and wash as I go. In this climatologically crazy year, I am confounded. In four days all my clothes are either grubby or still wet, festooned about the garden awaiting some drying sun. My fastidious nature hates all the mud. No one else appears to notice: they’ve always lived with this red mire. The children are filthy, our feet are red; it gets on the bedsheets. It spreads across the bedroom floor, however hard I try to avoid it. Cooking and washing up are done on the floor, on the mud. It gets wetter and wetter, and then comes the unseasonal rain again. I slip and slide with distaste.

After the rain, Alex takes the washing to the water

I move to the other round room: only the middle of the bed has suffered from a leak in the thatch. We dry the mattress and bedding in some brief sunshine, move the bed and I hope for the best. We’ll have to get the thatcher back to sort Jonathan’s House. Pity to waste (my) money thus when there’s so much more needing investment at Rock Gardens.

*

Poor Uganda, it’s such an appalling mess. One of the most corrupt countries on the African continent, an absolute basket case politically, that begins to show cracks in the social attitudes of its very friendly people, now troubled by so much. The cause of this social disquiet works down from the top. With no example of leadership, except the disastrous selfishness of leaders determined, above all else, to stay in power for their own egotistical vanity – and wealth, the people begin to follow the current. They are lost and rudderless; they see greedy men looking out for themselves and the social fabric begins to unravel. Museveni, the notorious president of Uganda, leads a deeply corrupt government, and has done for over thirty five years – so far, having ousted the previous president in a coup ‘because he had been in power too long for the good of the country’. The problem with these people is their overwhelming narcissism that leads them to think they become saviours. Elections here are an unhappy farce; I watched the last one myself, a year ago and saw with my own eyes (even with my camera) agents handing money to voters as lie upon lie was told.

Now I see this unhappiness surfacing amongst some of the friendliest people on the continent. There is jealousy for those who try to get on, even be it by their own hard graft: the assumption is that they are progressing by dirty means, as so many at the top are seen to do. Envy erupts and mutual support ebbs away. Neighbours begin to report neighbours, to hassle one another, to steal, argue, spread gossip, to undermine.

It’s a warning of where narcissistic leaders, mendacity, misinformation and one-rule-for-us can take a nation…

So I feel so sorry for Alex, a young man of integrity and principle, struggling to make a go of his life and provide for his – small – family; and sorry for so many other Ugandans with similar modest desires and ambitions, ‘hampered’ by, and in the current climate often despised for their honesty… “I lie awake sometimes and think, without you, what would we be?” For I have supported this family through the past two even more than usually troubled years.

*

Some days back, Alex’s maternal grandmother was hit by one of the millions of dangerously ridden boda-boda motorbikes, a blow by the mirror that toppled her. She was taken to hospital but didn’t speak again, and died a day or two later, aged 85. No police get involved and the family pays the hospital fees. There’s discussion, Alex tells me, about the retribution the rider should pay, but as he’s of a similar clan, he may get away with his recklessness.

Alex’s grandmother’s funeral

So on Sunday, there’s a vast funeral. I attend as a sort of surrogate grandchild – even encouraged by all around me to stand when the grandchildren are mentioned, and at one point welcomed by a daughter of the deceased in her speech, and thanked for ‘loving us’. I join a crowd of perhaps five or six hundred. It’s interminable, and all in languages I don’t comprehend, but it’s interesting culturally too of course. We sit beneath pointed gazebos ranged around a lumpy field on hundreds of hired white plastic Chinese chairs. A raucous PA system with a DJ relays awful pop music so loudly that the huge speakers distort. Preparations for feeding this enormous crowd with rice, potatoes, beans and scraggy beef continue behind the coffin. Boys relay the food in plastic dustbins, stainless buckets, washing up bowls and a few fancy serving dishes. We eat from plastic plates and some of the lucky ones get a bottle of plastic water or a bottle of pop. The food is surprisingly good. There’s an MC to introduce all the speeches, and Africans given a microphone love the sound of their own voices. I must sit through 24 various speeches, all unintelligible, plus addresses by various priests and politicians – THEY never miss out on these gatherings. “This will cost MILLIONS!” says Alex. “Millions.” Later, he estimates about £2000 – a king’s ransom in Uganda. “A waste! All pride, when the family needs the money, but you must put on a show like this!” There are so many noughts in Ugandan currency that I get utterly confused, but it’s also an economy where pennies matter to all but politicians.

Alex’s sister, Helen, greets Aunt Khalifa at the funeral

Meanwhile, the corpse lies in a mauve coffin festooned with golden plastic furbelows under a tent amongst the family mourners. We must all come and open the jack-in-a-box lid to look at the poor deceased beneath her glazed window, like a specimen. The lid pops up and down – I think she’s been made to look too young – the chatter continues around, the music blares. People are dressed in mismatched clothes: a few in finery, but most in their ill-fitting secondhand clothes, unpressed and a bit ragged. Very few can afford new items; they rely on our waste. I count five face masks, and ‘social’ distancing is impossible in this throng, and against all Ugandan social norms.

‘Social distancing’, Uganda style. Or just the prospect of a free meal at the funeral!

*

Uganda, to compound all its problems, is hugely overpopulated. That’s not what most Ugandans believe: they exist to make babies, it seems. The country has the second lowest median age in the world at 15.7 (beaten only by Mali at 15.4). In my lifetime the population has ballooned from 5 million to 50 million – and growing fast, estimated to be 100 million by 2050. Shocking statistics. The average Ugandan woman gives birth seven times, and even educated women have multiple births. There are babies and children everywhere. Few people reach my age – less than 2%. Only a few educated young people understand how this affects their economy. Alex and some of his friends, many of whom I have met over my visits, work tirelessly, and voluntarily, to expound the messages of smaller families, healthier families and better educated families, but it’s a seriously uphill task in a land of downtrodden women and largely amoral men.

The late Yamangwa Jane, Alex’s grandmother, whom I met a couple of times, had 11 children. She had 81 grandchildren (81!), 136 great grandchildren and 23 great great grandchildren! She was only 85 years old. For me to go back to my great grandfather, I must reverse just short of 200 years…

The great view to the west from Sipi hill

“Come, let’s go to the back, on the hill,” suggests Alex after almost two hours of speeches. “The church service will begin now.” Alex is no fan of organised religion and the money collecting antics of the church officials. I remind him of what happened when Precious and I attended another funeral in a distant village. A self-proclaimed pastor ranted endlessly and neither of us understood the language (Precious hales from the other side of Uganda, a country with many languages). “Let’s go, we are bored!” she whispered. As the only mzungu amongst several hundred people it was impossible to make a discreet exit. We slid off our benches and sidled away… and caused an exodus of other attendees! At least 40 more people followed our lead, just waiting for the excuse. The pastor was livid, furiously condemning ‘infidels and non-believers’ for their behaviour. I didn’t understand that either until Precious told me later, laughing.

This time, no such disgust, and I was able to retreat to the big hill with its fine view of northern Uganda stretching below the escarpment into the lowering sun. At last, another hour later, we could slip away behind the trees, hopefully forgotten but having given respect by my attendance. Enough was enough: cultural interest has its limits.

*

On day four, we set off on a long hike, along the steep curling edges of the red rock escarpment that drops away towards the vast plains and lakes of central Uganda. There’s mist wreathing up from the valley. There’s a cool dampness still around on the breeze, but it’s humid too, difficult to get my body temperature regulated by outer clothes: I am backwards and forwards between a chill short-sleeved shirt and damp sweaty thin jumper. Shortly after we set off, we are joined by Del, a young fellow who decides he wants to accompany us. He walks the fifteen or more miles in tee shirt and flip-flops. Alex thinks perhaps he wants to improve his English, but if so he’s pretty tongue-tied most of the eight or nine hours we are walking. A nice enough lad, he doesn’t say much but appears to enjoy his day.

We wind our way through matoke (savoury banana trees) and coffee bushes. Tall eucalyptus shimmer in the cool damp breeze that’s rising from the valleys below. I pant up some steep red earth hills; we’re over 2000 metres high, the air is thin. Villages are scattered and remote. In the largest we take to mud footpaths, still mired by yesterday’s heavy rains. It’s slippery going. We divert to visit an elderly couple, some clan relation to Alex. They live in a comfortless earth and stick home with some plank sheds around. The old man, says Alex, is a veteran of WW2, in the Middle East. He’s 87, he says, born in 1935, so he’d have been 12 at the end of that war. I work it out that he must have served in the Suez conflict. “Yes, Suez Canal” he agrees proudly. He’s astonished to have a mzungu visit and his wife, bent almost double with age, immediately starts to prepare tea for her visitors, but Alex demurs: we have a long walk and will come back another day. The old man points our way through the matoke. We walk on.

Alex and Del walk ahead, but I feel we are going wrong: we shouldn’t be walking downhill…

Soon we find we are walking into the valley. We’ve gone wrong. Alex asks some boys with cows, and they point directly up to the red cliffs 300 feet above us. We clamber and slip up a trail through small shambas, farmed at acute angles. It’s a hard life, scraping a living from land like this. Near the top there’s a roughly made ladder, fifty or sixty feet straight up the cliffside. It’s a metre wide and made of sticks held with four inch nails. We climb up and weave through tiny fields over the final curve of the steepness to the rim of the cliffs. For some miles now, we follow the rim of the impressive cliffs and look back to where we started at Sipi, a distinctive hill several miles away across the contortions of the cliff faces. We must have walked about eight or nine miles by now, it’s the best walk I’ve taken here. Alex dreams of bringing guests here for exploration. I warn him to check they are athletic and not afraid of heights. We’re close to the edge, and it’s a long drop; water sprays up on the stiff wind from a delicate fall that we cross. It’s magnificent. I don’t get to these places by motorbike: I have to work for these thrills.

You don’t get this on a motorbike!
Alex follows up the ladder

We ask our way from a farmer. “Hah! I don’t speak this language,” says Alex, who speaks many Ugandan tongues. We are no more than ten miles from Sipi and the farmer is almost unintelligible to him. At last we can look down on our destination, 500 feet below. We’re visiting Doreen again, one of Alex’s sisters. He has eight siblings. “…By my mother,” he expands. “There are three more by other women.” Alex has determined that Keilah and Jonathan will be all his family. “I want to educate them well, not at government schools. I don’t want them to have the life I have led. Two children is enough! Enough!”

We’ve walked from Sipi hill, the peak on the far horizon, and we aren’t half way

We’ve walked to Doreen’s shamba once before in the valley and motorbiked here too, along the curling earth roads at the escarpment base. But this is the best way we’ve approached. Our winding clifftop trail brings us to the top of two steeply angled ladders, down the cliffs, about 110 feet high, I estimate as I count the steps. They’re well maintained, professional jobs, obviously by the local council, but I can’t imagine lugging 30 or 40 kilos of vegetables or firewood up these ladders, as local people do – mainly women…

The ‘down’ ladder
Locals carry huge loads up and down these ladders!

We scramble down the final earthy slopes to a welcome from Doreen. A neighbour calls out, “Eh, Jonathan! You are back!” No mzungus come to these remote villages – except mad ones who enjoy a challenge. Neighbours come quickly to greet and offer us food.

We are just in time. It’s been cloudy all morning and we’ve watched the mist wreathes and rainfall in the valley, curtains of wetness emptying the clouds below us; but now they are drifting upwards on a stiff – cold – wind. It drizzles on Doreen’s zinc roof as we sit in the earth-built room and drink sweet coffee grown on her own shamba by Leonard, her pleasant husband. We don’t stay, promising to return sometime. It’s already “going to four” and we’ve still a very long walk back, at least seven or eight miles, including that awful clamber straight up the mountain right at the end. The rain catches us along the road and we run for shelter under the corrugated awning of a house. Rain thunders on the roof and drops in mini explosions in the soon-flooded muddy puddles. It’s cold: Alex and I have thin jumpers, but Del’s forearms are goose-pimpling in just a tee shirt. “We’d better find him some mtumba clothing,” I suggest to Alex, but the trading centre is a mile or two ahead. “I’ll go and buy umbrellas!” Alex says, and slips and slides off into the rain. “You’ll get soaked!” I call after him. “Oh, I am an African! I’m used to it.” Fifteen minutes later the torrents abate and Del and I can follow him down the now very slippery road. I’m happy I’m not on my Mosquito, yet still boda-bodas go past at speeds I wouldn’t consider – and I wouldn’t be freewheeling down hills as is their universal habit (to save a few pennies of fuel at the cost of no engine braking or lubrication), relying on weak, badly maintained brakes and bald tyres on this ice-rink of muck. They are awful riders and many accidents happen.

Sheltering from the downpour

Alex comes the other way, swinging Chinese floral umbrellas. He’s bought three for £6. “I made the seller reduce because I was buying three!” We twirl our way down the muddy slopes through the local village, idlers calling cheek about the old white mzungu, only some of which Alex translates, but most that make him laugh. Who cares? I’m such a celebrity ‘footing’ my way through these rural areas. For many, I am the first mzungu they’ve been close to. We are often told that I am the first mzungu visitor when we go to people’s homes.

One cheerful insult Alex translates: “Eh, these mzungus! So much money they have nothing better to do than go walking!” Of course, no mzungu has to work for his money, he just picks it from the mythical money trees up there in the global north. Not one African really understands that there’s an appalling distribution of wealth in my country too: four million unemployed, homelessness, lack of rights and gig economies. We’re all wealthy and living in luxury. It’s what they see on ridiculous TV soaps and ‘reality’ TV. And we make the stuff we sell them – few make the difference between Chinese mzungus and European, and now there’s even an influx of dreadful Chinese soap TV to add to the Brazilian, Mexican and other low quality dramas. The better stuff – even the dire American productions – are more expensive for the broadcasters, who want to fill the minutes between the adverts and propaganda as cheaply as possible.

“Oh, take me to your country. I want to make money,” is the most common demand made of me in Africa. How can anyone wonder about the desperation of immigrants taking to leaky boats and risking their lives, when all we show them is this profligate wealth and wonder? We peddle lies to sell Stuff but don’t have the honesty to respond with any sympathy to the resultant ambitions to reach our gold-fringed borders.

Sorry for my tirade, but you see, I am here, and I somehow understand the visions Africans have of life in our privileged lands. I am such a rich mzungu: no one understands that my apparent wealth involves choices.

The walk home is more or less dry, but those last heights make me flag at the end of a fifteen or sixteen mile hike. With the ragged footpaths greasy after heavy rain, there’s always another hill above. “We are almost there!” exclaims Alex, as another steep rocky clamber comes into view. At this time of year, we should have been walking in hot equatorial sun: it shouldn’t be wet at all, even here on the high slopes of Mount Elgon. What’s happening to our fragile planet?

*

Uganda’s schools have been closed for 83 weeks. Almost two years. The longest school closures in the world. By a government who just don’t care. Education levels were low in this country before the pandemic, they are now set back again. Many schools will never reopen as they have been sold by their landlords for trucking depots, accommodation blocks, warehouses, housing development. All non-teaching staff resigned when their pay stopped, and found other ways to scrape a living. Many parents will not send their children back to school because when schools opened last year, and they paid fees, the government summarily closed them again within less than a week. Parents had no compensation – and their children no education. Alex lost Keilah’s school fees. And no one has money in Uganda, except a few. Multi-billionaire Museveni doesn’t care. It’s a fiefdom run for his and his cronies’ benefit. Many suspect that he inflated the coronavirus statistics to get more support from Western governments, but none of that support trickled down to vaccinating the people…

“Some of us have been vaccinated,” said Milton, an erudite friend of Alex’s brother Cedric at the big funeral. “We’ve had two shots, and when they offer a booster, we’ll be there. But many people resist. They’ve been influenced by the myths and stories and they think the vaccination will bring the antichrist to their bodies!” He laughs ironically. “The antichrist, in a vaccination!” It’s so easy to manipulate the uneducated. Most of those vaccinated are the educated.

We laugh at the idea of the antichrist in a vaccination. “And look around,” I say, surveying the 500 or 600 funeral crowds. “Almost every person is clutching a phone! If the antichrist is coming, it’s already in those devices!”

“Yes, data-mining, algorithms, your fingerprints, ID, facial recognition, propaganda, marketing – all stored in some ‘Cloud’ available for any use or abuse…” Milton and Cedric are both employed for their IT skills. “And I think in total our vaccination rate is about 3%…” No one cares. There’re no role models. And everyone is more influenced and manipulated by the phones in their hands than sensible argument.

*

JB in his first school uniform. Room to grow

Now schools are open again at last, and we all take little Jonathan to register for his first day at school. The teacher asks his name. “Jonathan Bean Cheptai,” says Alex. “Is that B-E-N?” asks the teacher in some confusion. It’s a private school; Alex has no faith in the government schools, and the Shalom Nursery and Primary School is more than ten miles off, in Kapchorwa, the local rather scruffy town. There are two school minivans, packed with toddlers and small children. One travels as far as Sipi, and Keilah is collected shortly after five in the morning! School actually begins at eight and ends at three thirty. Keilah is five years old. Little JB, at three years, will have the same day, returning in the late afternoon. They eat basic food during the school day and Jonathan will join the ‘Baby Class’, along with about 60 or 70 (very appealing) toddlers. Having a mzungu visit is exciting and I must shake 100 small hands. A considerable part of the smaller children’s school day will be spent in play and activities, watched over by three very patient teachers, cheerful women: they’d need to be. The school buildings are somewhat shanty-like; poorly constructed timber walls under zinc sheets. The playgrounds are the same red mud as everything else around here. Everything has the same patina of dust and mud, even the hundreds of children packed in the few classrooms. Yet this is one of the best schools in the district. Little government money or development reaches these places. They don’t care about their people, just themselves, entrenched by propaganda and lies…

Once evil men gain power they buy loyalty around them and it’s very difficult to unseat them…

Sadly, after two days at school, Jonathan was back home with a hacking cough.

*

For five hard hot days I pitched into the development of Rock Gardens. After all, it’s my investment too. I’d like Rock Gardens to have the finest gardens in Sipi – which won’t be difficult, as no one here bothers with gardens. Alex was stuck on the fact that he had to have exotic plants (expensive) until I pointed out that local plants and trees are exotic to me. So why not fill the garden with avocado trees, mango trees, matoke trees, bananas, coffee bushes (which have a delicious aroma when in flower), camellias, acanthus, orange trees, lemon trees? They all grow locally, and if we plant them as a garden, not a plantation, they can give shade and colour, and fruit – and many of them cost nothing, or not very much. Add a few more exotic palms and he will have a veritable botanical garden! So we’ve been planting like fury, while I have undertaken huge earthworks to make vehicle ramps, raised stone flower beds, pathways, a fire pit and a flight of stone steps. Alex is full of dreams but gets diverted easily by his enthusiasms. I have been focussing him: on things that make him money or make a good first impression. I am a scenery designer after all. A beer garden, washing lines dismissed to the back of the roughly half acre plot, shade for mzungus, flowers, tidiness. Litter burned.

Rock Gardens, soon to be Sipi’s botanical gardens!

Most Sipi workmen are terrible. Quality of workmanship is abysmal. Commitment to work is poor. Turn your back and workers sit down and drink. No one cleans up after themselves. There is no pride, just take the money – for a bad job – and go. The norm appears to be two working to four watching. Tools are old, basic and blunt, if there are tools at all. Screws don’t exist: you hammer in a nail, without drilling first. Timber is curling and twisted, almost fresh off the tree. Everything is done with a panga (machete), hammers and hoes with loose heads. A nail suffices as a chisel. I can see that what Alex – not a particularly practical man – needs is an old mzungu workman! I can do in a day, even with the heat, what Ugandan ‘workers’ do in three. And do it a lot better.

I’ve been fortunate to have a quiet young man as helper, Fred. He works hard and even thinks for himself. We have literally moved part of the mountain and Rock Gardens WILL be the best beer garden in Sipi, with a homespun, ethnic feel. Things grow fast in Africa if we keep away the goats – and one of the projects Alex completed successfully last year was to fence and enclose his complete compound from wandering animals and short-cutting locals, to improve security and protect his garden.

The Bean ziggurat at Sipi. A day’s work for an old mzungu, three or four for local ‘masons’…

Two young men passed telling comments: “Huh! This place started as a joke!” But their implication was that now it’s a serious venture and they could see something of the vision Alex has nursed for so long. Sadly, anyone who works for a dream is seen as somehow deluded and vainglorious here in Sipi. There’s a deep cynicism and pessimism amongst the neighbours that work is not worthwhile. After all, the ‘Big Men’ don’t work much. Poor Alex.

*

Unfortunately, three days before I leave Sipi a villager about 300 yards further down the red earth road, is inconsiderate enough to die. He’s been a thorn in Alex’s flesh for years, spreading jealous suspicions of cheating and petty corruption impossible to Alex’s open honesty. Yet still he must attend the funeral house. And no one will work in the area on the burial day, so work will stop at Rock Gardens.

So, the man died. Bad news for me! Death equals disco in Africa nowadays. As in Navrongo, Ghana, where 30 years ago I remember drumming and whistling through the nights after a death, that has now regressed to a rented pounding PA system relaying thumping pop ‘music’ for four endless nights as the corpse lies, presumably quietly decomposing, in a painted coffin with pop-up lid until burial. It’s a ghastly travesty of cultural tradition that probably began as a belief in warding off evil spirits or something similar.

Nights in the Discos of Death. Such a cheapening of culture.

*

Precious, Jonathan and Keilah and nasturtiums from Devon

Precious and Alex and the children wave until I turn the corner of their red earth track and start down the hill on my way home to Kitale. I’ve been 12 days at Rock Gardens and we have transformed its landscape. The burial that has disturbed my sleep so efficiently for three nights will take place today. Many people will pass Rock Gardens.

Alex emails later: ‘am very happy of the great work you shortly did during your stay. Oh yes, much pictures taken by rich men and just wondering. The place looks beautiful. Yes, a joke is turning into reality and we will keep focussed’. We’ve discussed often that his customers should be the ‘rich men’: professionals and business people who want a quiet, peaceful place to drink in a nice beer garden, eat a few snacks, have meetings or office parties, weddings and events, with the added option of a few paying guests in what he plans will one day be five rooms.

The ride back round the mountain to Sipi is exhilarating and fun, trail riding at its best for the 40km of still rough road. Leaping and dancing about with a smile on my face, I am once again thrilled to be here, gazing down into the expanses of northern Uganda. Maybe in two years, I will be able to fly along on smooth tar, but for now the dusty enjoyment is exciting. I am at one with my little trail bike, behaving as if I were 30 again, people waving and exclaiming as I pass their shambas, earth houses and trees blathered in dust from the roadworks.

I wish Alex so much success. If he becomes independent, can educate his charming children to a positive future, and keep his small family content, I shall have achieved and left something very good in Uganda.

Jonathanbean Cheptai and Keilah
The shoulder puffs are a traditional dress for older women
Mama Shifra with Surea, complete with charcoal eyebrows
The finest chameleon I’ve seen in Africa
Precious joins the Aunties for a photo

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