KITALE AND BACK TO UGANDA
This year’s trip is different from so many others. I’m not riding far, exploring places I already know in more depth and consolidating friendships with my old friends and families. It’s a constraint of the pandemic, as last year, to some extent, but also just a change of emphasis from my footloose wandering journeys of old. I’d like to explore Tanzania, but the tedious business of PCR tests and visas causes me to stay nearer home for now. ‘Home’, a place where you feel you belong, the dictionary says. And this year I’ve just swung between the three familiar places in East Africa: my ‘base’ in Kitale, the family (and my ‘work’) in Sipi and my walking mate in Kessup.
I refuse to credit any of this change to slowing down for age!
Once at least in every safari I ride another of my favourite roads, a twisting bucketing 25 mile trail ride straight up – or down – the side of the Great African Rift Valley to or from the cool heights at Nyaru. Now I start out with the long winding tar road descent from Kessup’s plateau, the heat increasing as I drop into the great Kerio Valley once again, then I turn onto white dust and rock for a hot ride to the base of the steep escarpment. I cross a trickling river (‘Crocodiles have been seen in this vicinity. Cross with care’, warns a rusted sign) amongst the mess left by the fluorspar mines and begin the quickly cooling ascent to the heights of the highlands. It’s a rise of about 5000 feet, most of it achieved in about eight miles of rough ground. At the top, after a mug of chai in a dilapidated shack, I continue on a new road that teeters along the very top of the cliffs. Anywhere else in the world, there’d be lookouts and viewpoints all the way, but this is Africa, and it’s a mere practical route from village to village, with scant views through the thick clifftop vegetation. I have to struggle through bushes to even glimpse the vast valley below.
Then I turn onto a red rock road and wander through the Kaptagat Forest to the quaint, faded colonial hotel with its candlewick bedspreads and big log fire in the old brick fireplace in my room. I think I come for the log fire redolent of the forest cedars. It’s battered around the edges, is the Kaptagat Hotel, but I get a warm welcome from Ellen and the workers here: I’m ‘their’ mzungu by now. “I thought of Jonathan just the other day and tried calling your number, but it wasn’t picking…” It won’t, I have a new phone number each year.
Adelight’s a bit lonely, with Rico in Congo and all the girls back at school, college and work. She misses our nightly Scrabble contests. ‘Welcome, bro, most welcome’, she texts her reply to my message that I’m on my way. Her text continues, ‘Imagine, today I thought of buying ingredients for bread knowing that any time you will be back here.’ And so home to base once again in Kitale.
Some months or so ago, Adelight’s twin sister, Braxides, gave birth to a baby girl. Sadly, little Noreen was born with a hair lip. An admirable charity works to operate on these unfortunate children, called ‘Smile Train’. Surgeons move about the country carrying out multiple operations in different regions. Noreen had her operation at the Dreamland Mission Hospital in Kimilili, the town from which the family hails. On the day of the procedure, Adelight, Maria and I paid a visit.
Dreamland Hospital hardly lives up to its optimistic name, although for a mother with a baby with a deformed face, it may indeed fulfil its promise. It’s a basic place way down red dust tracks, a mile or so from the scruffy, meandering town of Kimilili. Comforts are few, the wards harsh and empty of all technology. The mothers stay with their babies for a week, in a concrete ward with nine chipped iron bedsteads, time-worn sheets and a faded blanket each. Every bed has a mosquito net, but there is no further furniture or comfort. A door at the end of the ward is signed to the washrooms. Open steel-framed windows, rather dusty, look out on yards with scant grass and washing lines and the morgue. This is African reality: and a reality for which many are deeply grateful. Eight cheerful mothers have bonded in the small ward, watching one another’s babies and living from a suitcase or assorted bags. They sit on their beds nursing babies, each with suture tapes across their upper lips, and drip connections in their tiny wrists. A three year old boy, in matching trousers and waistcoat, in for a second operation from a more serious deformity, stares at me with big eyes, fascinated by the mzungu visitor – as are all the mothers and babies! It’s impossible to imagine the relief and gratitude they feel for the minor miracles that have been performed on their babies, especially bearing in mind the stigma and ignorance that they face, frequently from the fathers themselves. As I have said at length: I have little time for many African men. A hair lip, albinism, birth defects, learning disabilities: they are all the fault of the mother… African men only transmit pure genes.
Thanks to Seth and the five pound tip I gave him last time, I am at another hospital on another ‘Thasaday’ for a PCR test. Adelight’s accompanied me this time; we’re going shopping in town and I’ve promised to buy her lunch. With the mix of accents, face masks and phone calls, it’s always a lot easier to leave negotiations to Adelight. Soon Seth, over the phone, has authorised my test. On Friday, Adelight phones Seth a few times: something’s wrong with my details, so I must meet him on Saturday morning. I think maybe it’s just that he wants to hand me the result personally and get his reward. I’m OK with that; he’s cut through a lot of red tape for me. So on Saturday, I load up the Mosquito for return to Sipi, and ride via the clinic.
While I wait for Seth – we’re waiting at opposite ends of the lab compound – I meet Sylvan, the security guard who’s let me in the gate. Neatly dressed, respectful and obviously educated, he’s a cut above the usual gate man in Kenya. He greets me politely, then asks, “Can you help me to any position..?” This is the desperation of a degree-holding, smart young man: he clutches at straws to find employment. For now, the only thing he can find is to be a lowly gate security man at a regional health clinic. Even a stray mzungu might be able to help. I apologise for my lack of influence and listen to his story. “I went to university and studied criminology, but there’s no work in Kenya. I have been for many jobs. Many of them say I am very suitable for their post, but they all ask, ‘So what can you bring for me?’” He will have to bribe his way to employment: a sad fact of corrupt Kenyan life. He is ‘a complete orphan’ and has no reserves to buy a job…
Seth arrives and opens offices to fill in and print out my Covid test certificate. He’s charming and friendly, especially now he’s off duty and has travelled in from Kiminini, out past Adelight and Rico’s home, to help me. When I tell him I have a box of plants and cuttings from Adelight’s compound on the back of the bike for Rock Gardens, he confesses an ambition to build his own small restaurant in Kiminini, and that he too enjoys gardening. He’s intrigued by my profession and we exchange contacts and agree we must meet sometime at his home. People here are SO very polite and interested in strangers. I know I’d be made very welcome in Kiminini. Maybe I’ll ride there sometime.
But for now, it’s back to Uganda. All the officials know me by now and it’s easy to pass the border. Except that… I have arrived at the same time as a large group of Big Men on a Saturday jolly to make speeches at the construction site of the new border post. There’s a fleet of expensive, over-engineered shiny cars and lots of suits. While I am completing my business on the Kenya side, they ride in Important Convoy over to the Ugandan side, all their flashers flickering with importance, watched by some women washing clothes in the trickle of river and some donkey boys. All this pomp and self importance is typical: they’ve MADE IT to power (and money) and intend to show everyone, even if they are only local women washing clothes in a river, a few donkey herdsmen and a few lowly officials. By the time I ride over the old weakening bridge that’ll soon be superseded by a six metre raised highway, they are in full flow beneath a gazebo by Customs. I am ushered into a dark, dingy office to wait until the speeches are done. When I say I’d rather sit outside in the sun, the poor official is mortified that I might embarrass him: “It would look bad…” So I must wait 45 minutes for the final stamp on my papers, in case a grubby mzungu lowers the tone of the gathering of Important People.
I get sodden on the road to Sipi. Thankfully, I am past the 40kms region of disgustingly dusty, unstable new road building, back on smooth tar. The rain is intense but it’s not cold here, so I carry on, with the road to myself. There’s not much I can do against a tropical downpour except put up with it. Fortunately, at this season it’s rare, but these high mountains generate their own weather. The rainy season is coming soon and these showers are a fact of motorbiking life.
It’s dry in Sipi and everyone’s astonished as they hug my wetness, thrilled as always to see me home at Rock Gardens. It’s a hive of activity, ‘work’men everywhere, although only a small percentage actually WORK. I am horrified at the standard of workmanship and the lack of pride. They’ve resprayed the cement walls of the round houses. They’ve just sprayed straight over the windows: there’s cement stuck all over the glass! It’d take a moment to wipe it off with a cloth, but the workmen are long gone. The ‘tiler’ has laid tiles in the new bathrooms: crooked and blathered in tile cement. But he too is long gone. A ‘master mason’ has made a hole for a new small bathroom window and left the walls encrusted in long-dried cement that could have been wiped off while wet, and done half a job in heightening the wall. It’s disappointing: no one has any pride, they just want the easiest day possible. I blame 40-plus years of astoundingly corrupt leadership that has knocked incentive from the people. After all, if those at the top sit on their hands and make millions, why should we work? What’s the reward? If all that matters is knowing the right people, why bother to have pride and ambition in work?
It’s fun to use my practical and creative skills on this trip. Rock Gardens is changing; Alex is beginning to see his dream realised. Within an hour, the cuttings I brought have been planted; some of them no more than inch thick bits of branch. The rainy season’s coming; they’ll make roots and grow. African sunshine will nurture all these young trees and shrubs, and Alex has a strict regime of watering every day. All the English seedlings are thriving already. Nasturtiums are rampant inside the bamboo fence. Shrubs give off heavy scents in the evenings. It’s becoming an attractive place. The roof of the first round room, ‘Jonathan’s Room’, has been fixed by the slow workmen: corrugated sheets beneath the thatch. The bathrooms are being worked on and the main drains to the deep cesspit being laid. It’s all done at Ugandan pace: men sit about and chat. The norm is to pay daily rates, not contract for a job, so the longer you take, the more you make. Alex is frustrated and I get angry.
We have the first full day to work by ourselves, but on Monday, no one much turns up to ‘work’. “Ha! They are afraid of the mzungu!” laughs Alex. I make them clean up after their work! Next day, I catch a ‘mason’ actually washing out the wheelbarrow and plastic bowls at the end of the day. I congratulate him and he smiles a little sheepishly, but my point’s made – at least while I’m around… Alex isn’t particularly practical and my design sensibilities and practicality mean changes. I point out that the 30 metre long trench they were digging when I arrived won’t work. There’s not enough drop on the main soil pipe and it’ll block within minutes, and it’s too long anyway, without a manhole. The ‘plumber’ should know this, but the blockage will happen after he’s gone and someone else will have to deal with it, so he’s not raised the problem. I do. Yes, agrees the useless plumber, it’d be better running it to the deep hole Alex has already dug for the eventual guest house cesspit, at the bottom of the gardens. And, yes, another manhole should be dug too. Oh! It’s so frustrating!
So on Monday another trench is dug at right angles, and the mzungu directs its depth and direction. This one has a chance of working. But it means investment in the cesspit as well. It’s all about planning – or lack of it – a severe weakness in most of Africa: thinking ahead. Alex is better than most but always sees the cost, that he can’t afford. After breakfast on Tuesday we sit and have a talk. After all, it’s my investment too – the money’s mine. I persuade him that we should employ a capable contractor to build the main latrine and cesspit. He knows one in Kapchorwa, but the contractor charges £8 a day; the local bodgers only £2. I point out that we have just spent a day and a half trying to make good appalling work done by the locals; that most jobs fail and have to be redone; that he could save in cement alone the difference of using a knowledgable builder. He rings the contractor, persuaded and given permission by the finance department. He’s so reluctant to spend my money. A good failing, but a false economy.
A trip on Wednesday to Mbale, the local large town, 25 miles away down on the edge of the plains, was a frustrating experience. By slow, stop-starting matatu, Alex and I were going down on a shopping trip: looking for a door with a glass panel as the second room was built without a window, another false economy. We need pillows, artists paint brushes, coat hooks and floor paint. The frustration came in the fact that there are so few materials available; ask for anything just slightly off-beat (screws, coir doormats, masonry nails, wax floor polish, grey floor paint: “Grey! No… Only red, green and yellow.”) and I’m due for disappointment. The hardware shops are just small, ill-stocked lock-ups; a few dusty shelves of miscellaneous bits and pieces. Uganda makes Kenya seem like Europe: even Kitale has a large, well stocked hardware supermarket. It’s one of the most frustrating shops in existence with its system by which you must find a member of staff, select what you need from the displays, take his chit of reference numbers to the accountant, pay, then wait interminably while the goods are found in the basement stores and delivered to a collection point where all the goods are checked and rechecked. Indians in East Africa trust no one; Indian owners employ legions of security staff. They often own the biggest supermarkets.
We come back from Mbale with little for which we went and I’ve been angry to the point of shouting in the street, harassed by glue-sniffing street boys. In Kenya, local people will chase them off me, but in this scruffy, down-at-heel town, passers by are just amused at the angry mzungu: it’s not the respect I get elsewhere in Africa. We have a drink in a paint-flaking rooftop bar, served by a surly waitress who couldn’t care less and I tell Alex it’s the first time I’ve stopped in Mbale – usually riding through the madness of its boda-boda traffic, as we look down on a chaotic roundabout and the colonial clock tower topped by a rather sexually suggestive pair of cement coffee beans – and I hope it’ll be the last. Mbale is a largely Moslem town and there IS a difference in people’s acceptance of a mzungu…
A door with glass panels will cost us (me!) £63. A charming elderly gentleman called Jimmie runs the small factory. It has half-decent timber and circular saws and planers. They make some rather nice furniture, but the bedsteads and chairs weigh hugely, made thickly from heavy hardwoods. It’s a wonder there’re any trees left in Africa. I suggest to Alex that at the price of over sixty pounds it’d be better to make a small window and insert it into the walls we’ve just decorated smartly with Intercontinental Designer concepts of ‘African’ design. Jimmie has the wood cut to measure for me from a heavy plank and we take boda-bodas back to the matatu stage, Alex with the eight foot lengths of timber across his knees.
We squeeze into a battered matatu and return back to the mountains above and home.
On Thursday, Alex and I carried four eucalyptus trees from a plantation a quarter of a mile and 100 feet below Rock Gardens. He’s bought them from a clan member for £6, chopped them down ready for various building projects. Five trips down through the matoke plantations and shambas of the neighbours amuses them hugely. “Heh! You are killing your old white man,” people call. No one expects mzungus to actually work – after all, most of the mzungus they see are priests or Chinese foremen, aid workers or tourists. To watch me lugging heavy tree trunks, felled moments before and full of water, a banana leaf twisted into a pad on my shoulder, is a revelation. And of course, with about 1% of the population over seventy, it IS rather unusual! As for me, I feel the fittest I have enjoyed in at least a decade.
On Friday, we carefully break a hole in the second round house, constructed from split poles and sticks, filled with red mud and encased in cement render. “Imagine how big this hole’d have been if the local ‘craftsmen’ had made it!” I joke as we work, careful to preserve our decorative walls. By late afternoon we’ve inserted a decent window frame ready for the glass, for £6. At the same time I fit a bathroom window, ineptly made by THE local welder, into a huge hole that has been smashed out by the local ‘craftsmen’. So, we get in the professional contractor to discuss the main latrine and cesspit at the bottom of the plot. He appears to know what he’s talking about at least. “Let’s just do it once and pay more,” I advise Alex. “I’m fed up with trying to make good badly done local work.”
Keilah and Jonathanbean are growing up: cheerful, active children. Keilah has developed into a charming, warm-hearted little nearly-five year old and JB is becoming a wilful, noisy, busy bruiser. They are unsophisticated and – generally – delightful. On school days, they are collected by the school van around 5.30am and return at around 6.00 in the evening. They are 3 and nearly 5 years old! Imagine telling an English child that they must rise at 4.30 in the morning to bathe in cold water and go to school… Happily, they both enjoy school and are raring to go despite the middle of the night start. I’ve become very fond of Keilah on this visit: a sweet, endearing child. Both have completely lost their fears of the mzungu in their compound.
I’ve challenged myself to walk a lot on this trip. One day, Alex and I amazed everyone by walking to Kapchorwa! By road it’s eleven miles, but we went over the mountains, over high, cliff-topped ridges, hundreds of feet high like Toblerone, up and down, up and down for seven hours. All told, I think we walked 15 or 16 miles. Like William, Alex is a good companion for long hikes: he too likes people. I must wave and greet hundreds on such a walk, children running behind us in excitement, calling from way up the shamba-covered slopes, and rushing from houses to watch and greet a rare mzungu. In Uganda, there are people everywhere. We followed the edges of the Mount Elgon forest, a national park that crosses the border between Kenya and Uganda. I spent New Year’s Eve on the other side of the mountain in Kenya.
Mount Elgon is one of the world’s largest volcanic caldera, some 80 kilometres in diameter. It’s thought to have been originally even higher than Kilimanjaro (5900m) but collapsed during a violent eruption that emptied the caldera. It hasn’t erupted for 20 million years and it’s thought that when it did, it poured magma slowly from it’s crater, forming the waves of ridges that lead down from the now broken crater. Hiking here involves steep ascents and descents, an endless challenge indeed. “How often have you made this walk to Kapchorwa?” I asked Alex. He worked in this local town centre, in the best hotel, heartlessly sacked by the owner, along with most colleagues at the beginning of the pandemic – an exploitation from which my money has freed him. “NEVER! It’s my first time I ever footed here!” he exclaims, and we both share the pride of a walk that most people in Sipi would never consider nowadays, in the ‘pick me there’ culture that surrounds the ubiquitous boda-bodas.
Uganda feels to have changed in the five years I have known it. Or perhaps my knowledge is deeper by beginning to understand the culture, by coming to know this small family much more intimately. Uganda seems to have lost its way, to lack focus, to be sliding into a sort of moral stupor. Its median age of 15.7 years does nothing to help: there’s little life experience to guide moral behaviour – after all, youth has always known best, and there’s little control on their precocious immaturity here. There’s an increasingly reducing percentage of mature people to direct public morals by example and experience. Three quarters of Ugandans are below the age of 30; two percent over 65. It’s a land of the loosest of morals. Youthful hedonism is destructive; instant gratification is a preoccupation of youth, after all. Morality, constancy, loyalty are seen as unproductive. You get by by any means you can, to your own selfish advantage, independent of ethics or the law. The law’s corrupt anyway, all the way to the top: no one is held accountable, up to probably the most corrupt president and regime on this frequently corrupt continent.
Life’s certainly a struggle for all but a few Big Men and politicians. Prices are rising; there’s been little tourist income for two years; Climate Change is wreaking havoc with weather patterns and seasons; land gets scarcer as the population explodes; families with eleven, fifteen, nineteen children are struggling with basics, yet peer pressure and ‘culture’ insist that having more and more children is the justification of life. Women work like slaves; men are busy fathering children with multiple women and no regard for AIDS and HIV. This region of Uganda has the highest infections in the country. Schoolgirls barely into their teens are pregnant or already mothers. Babies are everywhere, in this ‘youngest’ country in the world (actually just beaten by Niger by point three of a year). Booze doesn’t help anyone. There’s a sense of fatalism about life. It’s a country out of control.
Short-termism is all. No one plans ahead. Nature is abused for short-term profit: few replant the trees they cut. Trees grow slowly, people don’t live long, firewood is a necessity, few think of the benefit that can accrue to future generations. Planning, thinking ahead, preparing for the future is something learned by education. Education levels were low in Uganda even before the pandemic closed all schools for just short of two years, longest in the world. It benefits the most corrupt regime and 35-year president to keep people poorly educated: they don’t notice when most of the foreign aid for dealing with coronavirus ends up in the bank accounts of the Minister of Health and three other politicians, now constructing luxury hotels. And this in a country with an average age of 15.7 (by comparison, the UK is about 41). Half the population is below the age of 14 years; that’s millions and millions of children who lost two years of education that they will never recoup, a time bomb that will affect life for a generation – that’s if they go back to school.
Uganda’s a litter-strewn land on a litter-strewn continent. The majority of this pollution is plastic, largely produced by the People’s Republic of China, who care not a jot for anything but profit, and a further inordinate amount is the product of Greed Corp, USA, (AKA the Coca Cola Corporation), to whom the same care for the planet applies. They manufacture almost all the soft drinks and polluting bottled water on the continent: look at the small print even on ‘local’ beverages and over-priced tap water in a plastic bottle and I will find they have been subsumed by the almighty financial power of Greed Corp. There’s no profit to be made in cleaning up the environment and no one knows the dangers of pollution of their soil, animals and bodies. It’s a state that fills me with helplessness and lack of hope for the future.
Of course, there are exceptions and Uganda is still a wonderfully friendly, cheerful place to visit. It’s just that I have been permitted to begin to see the culture from the inside now. What attracted me to Alex in the first place is interesting. On my first visit, six years back, I was leaving the country from Sipi, back to ‘base’ at Kitale. I had about £30 of Uganda money left from my safari round the country and I gave the bulk of it to Alex as a parting present, knowing already that I’d be back. I found out later that Alex had the wisdom to invest my gift in seed potatoes. The next season the weather failed for the second year and there was much hunger in Uganda: most had eaten their seed potatoes in the first crop failure, a prime example of the short-termism of so much of African attitudes. Alex was able to feed the family and help many of his neighbours. But then, he has a wisdom that is unusual. He plans for the future. It’s why I came back, and why I decided to sponsor his business here at Rock Gardens. It’s why I’m here now, working for his future too.
It’s still fun to be the celebrity in this rural village, a phenomenon indeed, as they see the white man working alongside locals, carrying timbers up the hills to taunts of, “Eh, Alex, you want to kill your old mzungu!”; to walk amidst the choruses of excited children, running to look at the white man in remote villages that may never have seen one before; to be greeted with warmth, and often a cheery quip, wherever I go… But the more I see of it, and the life that people here must live, the more I am thankful for all my privileges, comforts and the possibilities I have to achieve my ambitions and realise my dreams; thoughts that leave a residue of guilt and discomfort that such inequalities are possible in our modern, connected world…
On my last day for now in Sipi, we dress the gardens, rooms, and 1818 cafe/ restaurant for photos for a brochure. I’ve promised Alex I’ll design it when I get home. We make the rooms look fine with bedclothes and flowers to compliment our ‘traditional’ decoration. I try to make two dining chairs look like a crowd; use the only two pillows in both rooms; pad out the local wooden settees with bedcovers that look like the cushions we haven’t afforded yet; get some passing young people to pose as customers; use cold tea from a flask to look like beer in artfully displayed glasses and make the place look operational and inviting. It’s set dressing, what I do for a living. It’s my project too by now, a lot’s invested in it, not just my money but my effort too. I can feel it in tired muscles. I hope we’ll succeed and the future will brighten for this small family.
And so, my 14 day PCR test allowance is up and I must return to Kenya, to base. It’s the 23rd of February; actually I’ve had just 12 nights at Rock Gardens thanks to the delay in the test result two weeks ago. I walk down through the matoke with Alex to goodbye his aunt Khalifa, his main family supporter, where of course, we must take tea; then I load up the Mosquito – Precious is sending a huge, heavy bunch of matoke to Adelight, a bag of local vegetables and one of the last pineapples of the season – mouth-wateringly sweet now: things that they have to give. It will amuse everyone as I ride through villages and past shambas on my ride back to Kitale: a mzungu transporting local matoke like a boda-boda.
Only twice have I felt my life threatened in Africa: both times by Ugandan driving. Once, a matatu veered across the road right into my lane. I had to swerve to the other lane; fortunately nothing was coming. On my journey back to Kitale I have to throw myself from my motorbike, landing both of us on the stony edges of roadworks, to avoid collision with a ten-wheeler road-making truck, dangerously driven by a Ugandan with no regard for my safety: he’s on piece time rates. I have no choice but to fling myself out of his way, missing the truck wheels by as little as a foot, in a cloud of dust. With a hefty branch of matoke bananas on the carrier, I need help, in my indignation, from a road worker to lift the machine, and courage to ride on.
I think back as I ride, around this project that I am helping to develop for the family’s independent future: we’ve made strides ahead on my two visits. The garden is going to be fine. The rainy season is coming soon and the young plants will flourish. Maybe one day this will be like a botanical garden, as Alex and I plan. The basis of a good business, with Alex’s forward planning and hotel training, is in place – or soon will be. He’s almost ready to market the green, peaceful guest house, now needing just a neat, two cubicle latrine, plumbing completed for the current two round thatched rooms, and furnishing and stocking the bar efficiently.
For 12 days I have been immersed in eastern Ugandan culture; I’m really coming to know it more from the inside now. And I’m grateful I can escape to the comforts to which I have become accustomed in my privileged years. I feel grubby: my fault perhaps because I’m reluctant to wash very efficiently in cold water in a bowl. There’s a warm shower waiting in Kitale – if the power is on. The bed in Jonathan’s House at Rock Gardens is wonderfully comfortable, with those old thick continental sheets that Precious promises to keep for my visits even when we purchase modern bed sets, but it’s really the only place that I find bodily comfort here: horizontal, in bed at the end of hard days of labour. The chairs are wooden or Chinese plastic; the grass is harsh and dry and full of ants; around the fire pit is smoky and I fidget from muscular tiredness; food is oily, although I have now prevailed and got Alex, and sometimes even Precious, to leave out the kilos of salt; the old latrine that we must replace is basic and really unfit for most guests – proud, car-driving Ugandans – ‘Big Men’ – and their lady friends would be far too proud to shit in it! It’s just about OK for the old traveller mzungu. The sun beats and burns my skin, and if I’m unlucky enough to be here in rainstorms, mud is everywhere – everywhere! “Oh, you wouldn’t like it in the rainy season!” Alex laughs. “You couldn’t walk here with the MUD!” I’m a bit fastidious for this life, and some days I look forward to the tidiness of life in Rock Cottage in Devon… It’s inevitable: I’m just not used to so many privations, aspects of life taken for granted here. I don’t think I could bring myself to cook over smoky charcoal stoves on the mud floor of the compound, eat with my fingers, slip in mud, carry firewood, be covered in dust when I work – every day of the rest of my life.
But the warmth and welcome I receive is unbounded, and it’s not just respect for a benefactor: it’s from most I meet, and especially from my small family. Keilah runs to hug her mzungu uncle on return from school; Alex is constantly working for my comfort, and Precious, despite being Alex’s intellectual inferior, is always warm and loving, but the pressure from her lightly-educated friends is hard on her: she should have more children, more possessions, more pride, they say. Alex has a difficult balance to maintain: and Precious always feels herself a stranger here: she’s from a tribe across Uganda, and tribal loyalty is still all in undeveloped Uganda. She’s looked down upon by locals. In so much of Africa – almost all – tribe comes before nationhood and holds back so much development. Ghana, proud to be the first to discard the shackles of colonialism on the continent, has made some strides to nationality before tribalism, but it’s a rare example. Tribal loyalty predates the largely colonial divisions of most nations.
Precious cries when I leave, riding away up the red dirt road from Rock Gardens. Often, Alex tells me, she’s afraid for my age. “Without JB, whaaat will we do,” she laments. “I weeesh he was only feeefty! He should not be aLONe! I waaant him to come and live heere! With us.” It’s heartfelt, but I couldn’t do it: I need more comfort and much more intellectual stimulation than I could find here as an old man. I need things no one here even knows about: books to read; operas to listen to; classical music, not the endless ‘thump, thump, thump’ of modern African (actually, global) engineered popular music. I need steamed vegetables, decent beer, country walks without the chorus of “MZUNGU! Mzungu!”, fun though that may be for a while. Then there’s the unremittingly tough goat meat, mosquitoes and things that bite, and the repulsive jigger – a dust mite larva that took up residence beneath my toenail that Alex dug out with a two inch thorn in a disgusting, explosive operation. I need trains that take me places, shops that sell what I want, access to medical confidence, release from barking dogs, privacy from being a ‘selebrity’ and release from constant attention for my comfort and company. I need sometimes to be anonymous, unnoticed. I need friends around me who understand me instinctively, culturally and socially, read my wishes and needs, understand my moods.
And yet, for all that, this travel in Africa has become very much part of my life and gives me a focus that I value, a framework for my opinions and interests. And it’s brought me friends who love me like family, treat me as a brother or father figure, await my company with so much more than mercenary interest, open their homes and families to me, care for my every comfort – as far as they are able in this privation… It’s humbling, thought-provoking and utterly genuine. It’s REAL generosity: giving what you can ill afford to give without even further sacrifice. It’s family.
But it’s hard, unbelievably hard, to live this way. I’m content to know I can escape to my comforts and familiar life…