EAST AFRICA 2023 – EPISODE THREE

BUILDING WORKS AND HIKES IN UGANDA AND BACK TO KENYA. January 2nd to 18th 2023

Sometimes I feel like the Pied piper in rural Uganda, where most children have never seen a mzungu before.

Alex and I like to walk, the best legacy of the pandemic, when I came to understand how much we miss in our vehicular haste. Walking, I can tune in with the landscape – and in Africa with the people too. It’s an influence I’ve brought to Alex, for no one here would consider walking for any reason but necessity. “Eh, these white men, nothing better to do but walk!” is a comment Alex has overheard and translated in passing. He now occasionally takes a long walk when he’s stressed – but he tells no one what he’s doing!

Wonderful country for hiking.

Once a week or so, when I stay in Sipi, we take a long hike. It’s great country for it: with the cliffs and expansive views, the huge plains way below to the west and north, and thick vegetation to wander amongst up on the mountain slopes – and then there’s the avenues of excited children we find everywhere in this child-filled land.

Two year old Rosemary is fascinated by the mzungu and greets formally with a curtesy.

Having completed the kitchen floor, it needs to cure before the next phase: ideal time for a hike. Alex has worked out a route that will take us deep into the valley to the north, and then circle back into the steep slopes above which Sipi stands. That’s the only trouble here: we have to end the day with a 1000 foot clamber after several hours baking down below. By the final cliffs, where we sometimes have to teeter up ladders of twisted timbers, or steel stairways, I am stumbling along – but it’s all part of the challenge…

It’s hot and dry, hiking down to the great plains below Sipi, but the sense of space is energising.

This walk must have been little shy of 20 miles, in a hot dry region, the temperature soaring as we drop into the valley. As we walk down the winding highway from Sipi village, we are joined by a middle aged man, who is going our way. Alex knows him, he’s called Kenyatta, having been born in 1963 at the time of independence. He walks the next two or three hours with us. At one point, we stop for water and peanuts at his farmland, a bumpy patch of hillside far from his Sipi home. Here, he has a mud-hut shelter perched on a terrace with fine views to the north.

Kenyatta’s farm hut and a welcome pause for water and groundnuts. Abraham, Alex and Kenyatta.
A fine view over the Karamajong plains.

We sit on local chairs and drink water he has carried a quarter of a mile uphill from an irrigation water pipe. We’ve also been joined today by Abraham, the small 16 year old who’s been helping with the kitchen work. He’s a nice lad, quiet but hard working, unlike so many. He doesn’t manage the whole distance, and we have to send him back on a boda-boda still eight miles from Sipi – his legs are short and he’s flagging. He carries back three huge sweet pineapples we buy from the back of a pick up for 50 pence each – the best ones I’ve eaten this year. The pineapples I’ve been buying in Kenya come from Uganda too, but they cost nearly three times as much as these.

Dropping down the steep dusty paths through the rocks, we come across men yelling and shouting, chasing three big baboons from their crops. Nasty aggressive animals, they watch us from treetops and rocks and Alex is amusingly afraid they are humanly grudging enough to throw rocks back at us as we walk under the cliffs from which they are warily observing us. We can imagine the anger and challenge in their eyes. We put on an involuntary spurt as we pass beneath them!

Perhaps it’s a vindictive baboon!

Finally, we are down to the plain that stretches far, far north across the Karamajong region to the borders of Sudan. I tried to ride that way three years ago, but was beaten by mud after some hard riding. Now, where we finally emerge from the footpaths onto a wide dirt road, they are building a new road – more Chinese debt. We must walk along this road in clouds of dust raised by the big gravel trucks, tedious walking for three miles or so, and when we reach the junction of the tar road that climbs back up into the mountains, I urge Alex that we should take a boda-boda some of the way back up the tar road; there’s no pleasure in walking the tarmac verge beside smelly grinding trucks. The hill is a very long slope, climbing hundreds of feet; I’ve ridden it a number of times, one-up on 200ccs, and it’s a gear-shifting experience. Now we number: the rider, Abraham, Alex and me, with three big bags of groceries that Abraham will take home while we get off and walk the final rises. We’re on a 100cc motorbike with me on the rear carrier. It’s first gear stuff. Slow.

Alex and I alight part way up the hill and take to dust roads once more. I’m happy here, trudging through the matoke trees past earth and stick homes with corrugated roofs. There’s a huge wedding on in the district, so the houses are quiet, just children everywhere, running to greet the very rare mzungu or hiding in fear. So far, we’ve existed the whole day on various mugs of local water from houses as we passed, a plastic beaker of lumpy local drinking yoghurt called bongo (drunk in a scruffy dusty village coincidentally called Nabongo) and a handful of homegrown peanuts. Now we are flagging, even Alex, half my age. We have a thousand feet to climb before I can sit down with my Tusker and relax, at the end of maybe 18 or 19 miles of uneven walking…

Shamadi, met on the road. A joker and charmer!

By the time I get up from beside the fire pit three hours later, I can stagger just about as far as bed. But it’s a grand way to experience the countryside, the thousands of people I have greeted, the hundreds of hands I have shaken and the many – frequently untranslated – jokes of which I have been the butt on this hot, parched, dusty day in rural Uganda.

*

Next day, we clamber 700 feet back down the cliffs to visit Alex’s friend Tom, the wood-butcher who’s built much of the 1818 bar and restaurant and done much of the so-called carpentry at Rock Gardens. He’s asked us to go, as no mzungu has ever been down to the community around his home. Fortunately, I don’t mind being a display item to amuse the hundreds of children.

On display! Boys watch from outside as I relax.
Satya
Chemonges.

It’s difficult to describe the phenomenon of just how many children there are in Uganda. The vast majority of humans I see in any day are children and babies. It’s fun to be such a celebrity, but it’s shocking too, what it means for their future. Most are poorly educated, and by their mid to late teens will be already producing multiple children – probably seven and often more. They too will be sketchily educated, and producing another generation even before they reach school-leaving age. But what subsistence farmer, scratching maize from semi-vertical patches of rocky soil can afford school fees or even has time for stimulating the young brains of these giant families? The churches, of myriad scamming money-making cults, do nothing to stem the tide, male dominated Islam even less. If a woman doesn’t produce, she is likely to be abandoned and sent home (it’s never the man’s fault of course) and the man will ‘remarry’. Precious tells me the story of a mother crying on her knees in the school bursar’s office, whose husband was supposed to take the money to school but diverted and drank it all away with his male friends (£175!); shame set in too late and by then the man had found a sympathetic ‘other woman’ and disappeared. It’s a common story here. Men have so little responsibility and dump all their pride and aggression on poor uneducated women. I’m proud that Precious, born to a large poor family and lesser educated than Alex, is now withstanding extreme peer pressure to produce more than her two delightful (intelligent, stimulated, educated, very-good-English-speaking and bright) children. This couple have decided to give their children a future in which they have an opportunity to achieve the dreams that were so limited for them, Precious with twelve siblings and Alex with eight, plus three half siblings by other mothers. It’s a large part of the reason I support this couple: they actually think ahead, unlike most Ugandans, who bow to family and peer pressure – called, as with many of the other socially costly bad practices of life here, ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’.

Children are intrigued by the hair on my arms. Pity about the handkerchief/ cap! Sadly necessary on these walks by the Equator.

*

The sick old lady died down in her dingy earth and stick hut on the slopes below us. Now the family must have, by ‘tradition’, a huge funeral that will cost perhaps £1000 – in this subsistence community. “Do you think THIS is tradition?” I ask Alex as the noise begins: highly amplified techno-rapp music that will pound through the next three nights, disturbing the entire neighbourhood. Everyone is expected to donate, school fees and hunger not withstanding. Family farmland is sold, valuable cows slaughtered – in the name of ‘culture’. It’s not ‘culture’, it’s pure pride and arrogance. Every funeral must be bigger. Those who donate are praised by the master of ceremonies for their generosity – in front of all the so-called mourners, who are really there not to show grief and support but for the prospect of a free meal.

On burial day, Alex becomes MC, this educated younger member of the clan. He tells me of the unseemly fights that ensued over the free food and shares with me his record of the accounts so far. They include (and remember, this is explained as ‘tradition’):

  • Tents and chairs hiring £160
  • Music system £93
  • Petrol (for power) £50
  • Coffin £100
  • Cement, sand, blocks, tiles, iron sheets for tomb £93
  • Food £186

Total – so far… £685

This, in a poor, badly educated rural subsistence farming community where money is always the scarcest commodity.

“If you tell the people to give this money when the old lady is sick – you saw her yourself – nobody will give 50 shillings! That money would fund a child through most its future school life,” says Alex wisely. “Or given to a school, or orphans…” adds Precious. In this country, education is a low priority for most people. Every tiny hamlet has several ‘churches’, usually tin shacks closed all week and less leaky than the majority of crude houses, but no schools. There are far more ‘churches’ in these countries than schools – formed by self-elected ‘pastors’ as a business (that pay no taxes), frequently funded by right wing ‘religious’ Americans, exploiting the poor education and ignorance of the country-people. The chief pastor demanded £7 – considerably more than most earn in a day, for transport from just down the road (a boda-boda would be perhaps 1000 shillings – 20 pence) to come to lead the funeral prayers. The whole shebang is no more than a money-making opportunity; the funeral a chance of free food and drink or to demonstrate status and ‘generosity’ of the Big Men. With no election due, there were at least no politicians to make capital from it by distributing tenpenny bribes to potential voters but I could hear, from half a mile away as I worked on the kitchen, the amplified rants of fake pastors and self-serving speeches from local men of ‘status’.

This is what ‘tradition’ has become in this crumbling country. Life here can often be very depressing. Despite my pleasure at everyday times in the family, I am VERY thankful I don’t have to live here in this decrepit, backward land, ruled by avarice and corruption. Poor Alex. Integrity brings such slower rewards.

*

The rustic kitchen develops.

While Alex acted MC for the burial day at the huge noisy funeral, I worked with wood-butcher Tom on the kitchen. It’s one of the most frustrating events of recent life. If Tom can do things awkwardly and illogically, he does. He wants no new ideas and is resistant to experiment, just content to do things ‘the way we do it here’. And no one wants to actually WORK! They prevaricate and get distracted by phones, expectation of food, chatting with visitors – and they NEVER clean up. Alex laughs that most of the dreadful ‘workers’ who come because they think the mzungu has a lot of money, never come for a second day: I make them clean their tools and the worksite before they leave, and I lead and drive them into much harder work than they are prepared to do. As a consequence of my energy we use a changing succession of inept, unmotivated labourers! Alex, returning in the evening from the funeral was astonished that I had driven Tom to do so much in a day. We had raised the entire kitchen structure of posts and roofed it with zinc sheets.

“This would usually take him three days! Mama Keilah, how long would it take Tom to do this work himself?” exclaims Alex.

“Four days at LEAST!” replies Precious as Alex laughs that I even made Tom use local tree posts. “Eh, if I’d told him he must use local posts, he would have REFUSED! He’d want me to buy cut wood. Expensive!”

Bread oven, table and water heater. A bit medieval maybe, but novelties in Sipi.

Meanwhile, I am also constructing a mud bread oven from a book I found in a Totnes charity shop. We’ve had fun with that, as the mud needs to be worked into a paste with the feet on a tarpaulin. One day, we worked just as a family, the children and Precious joining in with gusto and a lot of jollity, treading mud, dancing and singing. Family life at its best: all focussed on our project. Precious and Alex are desperate to be able to make real bread like that they ate on their visit to Kitale where they enjoyed Adelight’s bread, a tradition that’s travelled the world: Joy Bean’s bread recipe.

Dancing in mud. Rach, Precious and Jonathan Bean 2

*

The two children have been a constant source of delight. Now there’s an admission! Keilah is five and a half, and Jonathan just over four. They are intelligent and stimulated and being close in age play happily together with shrieks of fun. In the evening, they come with long stories from their lively imaginations. Jonathan talks endlessly and noisily, while Keilah is quiet and very charming. She’s a pretty girl and warm-hearted. Each morning I get a run and a hug. JB copies most of what she does. Both speak English fluently already, as well as the local languages. They are bright. When we work together they have the greatest glee: with trowel and cement they help as they know and quickly learn. They are usually filthy beyond description by the end of the day in this mud and dust-filled homestead. They are unsophisticated, just small cheerful children. There’s not a ‘device’ in sight and apart from JB’s football, there’re no toys: Keilah’s Chinese plastic recorder and Jonathan’s Chinese plastic police car, so coveted at Christmas, are things of the past, already in local landfill – buried with all the other Chinese plastic rubbish in the pit from the old latrine. The football, however (leather and NOT made in China), was an inspired present, sometimes bringing together the whole family in a spirited game amongst the shrubs and flowers of our burgeoning gardens.

*

In a desperate need to focus on something more than cement, sand and stone, I suggested another hike. This was one of our hardest. It’s magnificent scenery for hiking, but very hard work, along the edges of this high escarpment. We walked for eight hours, probably about 18 miles again, but that doesn’t tell the half of the effort, for we must constantly rise and fall over these lower slopes of Mt Elgon, and sometime descend the cliff faces, only to clamber up again further along our walk.

Lovely country for hiking, but a LOT of up and down!

Our destination was one of Alex’s sister’s home, around three great outcrops of the escarpment. We’ve hiked this way before, but every route is different. With the expansive plains of northern Uganda down to our right, we scrambled part way into the valley between the first two outcrops and took to a dust road through endless small villages and scattered habitations. I said before, it’s difficult to describe the experience of being in a country with such a VAST population of children. Where we walk in these rural areas, most children have never seen a mzungu before. Cries surround us: “Come and see! There’s a mzungu coming! Come and see!” Sometimes, it’s not just the children either. Hundreds upon hundreds come from their fields and doors to observe the phenomenon, to greet, shake hands or just stare. Old ladies call out in their local languages (and those change every few miles. Just four or five miles from home, Alex – a true linguist – is struggling), “Thank you for the visitor to our village!”

Ignatius harvesting ginger.

We come across Ignatius and his family harvesting ginger on an embankment beside the road. We poke and investigate, and walk on carrying a couple of kilos of ginger for our masala tea, that I enjoy so much. Two kilos from Ignatius direct costs us 40 pence. Alex is delighted; in town it’d be at least £2. And that £1.60 can feed the family for the day or two. Later, at Alex’s sister Doreen’s home we drink coffee grown right here on the slopes around the mud house, in her shamba.

The views are spectacular. On our left, the great cliffs soar towards the bright blue, sun-filled sky. Trees teeter along the top edge of the sometimes overhanging precipices. It’s very dramatic, this enormous volcanic scenery. It’s green, green, green, heavily cultivated by the legions of subsistence farmers wherever there’s a chance to carve out a tiny field or terrace. And amongst the thick growth hundreds of basic mud and stick homes with rusty zinc roofs are hidden. Sadly, one gets used to wading through acres of plastic refuse: it’s everywhere underfoot and we crunch on single-use bottles, and black plastic bags wave everywhere. Broken Chinese products litter the slopes amongst the graceful matoke trees. I realise that I’ve become almost blind to the filth. I have to frame it out of my photos.

Playing marbles.

We are warmly welcomed when we stop for water here and there at houses we pass. Children come to stare from doorways, many of them reacting to my outstretched hand of greeting, but others running away with squeals and wails of fear. Some children approach bravely, intrigued by the odd being passing among them. Many rub the hairs on my arms in fascination, unlike the smooth skins of their own race. They like to feel the ‘pig’ hair on my head too when they get opportunity. Alex once wrote about his walks, when he takes along his phone camera, inspired by me to photograph people, “But I am not a slebrity like you!”

The great plain stretches FAR below.

At Doreen’s house, we stop for a couple of hours. She insists on a meal to follow her own coffee. We must submit to rice and some stringy meat in a stew – ALL meat here is stringy, a trial for my teeth; I haven’t an appetite in the heat of the day but I must make a show. When we leave, we are carrying a kilo or two of fresh coffee beans and a large bunch of just-plucked spinach.

Hard country…

Doreen and her husband, Leonard, will accompany us to the base of the huge ladders that cling to the cliff 500 feet above their home. High on the mountainside, at the bottom of the first steep steel ladder, we say goodbye to Doreen, but Leonard volunteers to guide us several more miles on our way. He’s a pleasant fellow, a subsistence farmer, intelligent and a good conversationalist with lots of local information. He and Doreen have four children I think, but as we walk, Leonard gives me the shock of the year so far. I am talking to him about the VAST population of children in this country, with 55% of the population under 18 years old, second in the world only to poverty-stricken Niger…

And then Leonard tells me that his father has 60 children!!! With ten ‘wives’ (aka baby-making machines) he has SIXTY children. Leonard is from the most recent wife… I doubt the father can even remember – maybe not recognise – that many children. And how can he hope to give them any life but that of subsistence? Even Precious is shocked when I tell her next morning. “SIXTY?!” she exclaims. “Look how hard it is to care for TWO!” as Keilah and Jonathan race about the garden making cheerful noise. What hope is there for this crippled country?

To Alex’s laughter, I suggest that perhaps circumcision ceremonies aren’t drastic enough…

*

Just don’t look down!
Or over the edge…

Leonard leaves us after about five miles at a junction by a bridge. We’ve just had to drop steeply down through small farms with children shouting, “Come and look, there’s a mzungu!” Leonard is amused. He’s never walked with a mzungu before. He’ll be taking stories back to the family as he hails a boda-boda to carry him home.

Ambrose, 83, stopped us with a history lesson on Uganda’s independence
Ambrose and his friends were drinking local maize beer. It’s drunk through nasty plastic tubes and the container constantly topped up with warm water. It’s pretty disgusting (IMO)!

The sun’s getting very low and we now have to struggle up the other side of the steep valley. It’s an endless climb, accompanied by a Pied Piper groups of children dancing and joking: one of them has a small battery music speaker. It’s fun and makes us all laugh. There’s so much goodwill it’d be impossible not to enjoy such jollity, even though both Alex and I are now tired out.

We’ve another six miles or so to stagger and I realise we’ll be walking the last couple of miles in the dark. I hate that as I don’t have the night vision that most of my Africans seem to enjoy.

I’ve brought along my head torch just in case. We stumble the last miles in pretty much pitch blackness on the broken dust road. My sock’s worn through to a blister, but poor Alex admits next morning that his blisters were between his thighs! He’s an ideal, easy-going companion for these long days: intelligent and quick, friendly to those we pass, and informative about the life around us – and always willing for just one more hill.

*

Charcoal stove in the part-completed kitchen.

Our new kitchen is rather rustic in style, constructed from local freshly cut eucalyptus trees, with a zinc roof. I’ve built a substantial charcoal stove from stone, more heavy work. Behind it I am building the bread oven. That’s been a process adapting the instructions in the book to the – very few – tools and materials available here in rural Uganda… There is of course plenty of mud! It’s the bane of my time here: everything covered in a layer of thick red dust, until it rains and becomes slithery mud. We buried empty bottles for insulation (even those are scarce, when they must be paid for if not returned to the wholesaler) in a layer of mud-crete – earth and sand mixed and beaten smooth by various feet. Then I managed to form the brick arch. The book told me blithely to make a forma of plywood or 4×2 timbers. Yeah… Try finding anything as useful as those in Sipi. All I had was Alex to hold up the two sides as I inserted the keystone, holding it all with claggy mud.

The arch. I was proud of this in the circumstances…

Behind the arch, on the mud base I had a frustrating time forming a dome of damp sand, not easy in such a hot dry climate. We rigged up a shelter from an old piece of borrowed canvas to provide shade. We needed newspapers to cover the sand dome, and even those had to be searched for in this community. I can’t rely on a store of useful ‘stuff’ for inventing practical projects: there’s nothing here except earth – everything else must be bought (and is often unavailable anywhere closer than Kapchorwa, ten miles away), or traded for pennies from neighbours. No one shares much here: it’s very much a cash-based rural economy. Everything, even scraps of timber or stone, has a value amongst poverty. One of the most irritating aspects of working here is that the inept ‘workers’ whom we employ frequently leave their filthy work site and steal the few tools we have, most of them brought by me from the hardware supermarket in Kenya. Tom, the wood butcher, has taken our tape measure and hammer. Martin, the useless ‘mason’, has pinched our decent float and best trowel. They have to be retrieved with argument, and are always damaged and unclean. It takes patience and resolve to achieve anything here.

*

The two JBs get stuck in with trowels and cement.

But it’s the children who have given me so much pleasure these two and a half weeks, with their noise and energy, such that many days I haven’t left the compound. We’ve worked together, Alex and I, assisted by Rach, one of Alex’s half brothers, aged 14, Mark his bar keeper and Precious. The children have joined in with gusto, slapping cement and plaster about as they watch and learn. At this stage of life, they are lucky to have no ‘devices’, as they learn to interact and work with others or to make their own fun with their bright imaginations. In some ways, to me, this is a healthy environment that allows them to be just children for a time, although African children have many duties in the household. The persuasive influences of commercialism generally pass them by: they aren’t targeted by rampant consumer pressure and material aspiration; they have no ‘stuff’ and are dressed in grubby rags, but life is happy and carefree in a very old fashioned way, loved and fed by fond parents but free as they wish. In many ways an ideal young childhood I think.

Keilah
Jonathan

*

Work continued: a second thick layer of mud and saw chippings from the eucalyptus trees that are constantly and rapaciously felled for building and firewood; a wood fired water heater from an oil drum and stone and more wood butchery by others.

*

JB2

Then a ride back around the big mountain after 16 cheerful, hard-working days because of a problem with my credit card. Of such are the new rules of international travel: I needed better internet to sort out my finances! Mind you, when I think back to the frustrations of my earlier world wanderings and managing money far from home – with NO internet, just dog-eared ledgers; travellers’ cheques and crumbling banknotes hidden about my body – I suppose a three hour ride in wonderful scenery is better than that time spent fretting in aged banks beneath dirt-whirling ceiling fans…

*

Precious cried and I rode away up the rutted red dust track, sad to leave.

The ride back to Kitale is so beautiful. Now I can blow along at speed (well, 200ccs only allows ‘speed’ to be about 50mph) on a smooth curling road, remembering from wayside topography where I used to struggle down steps of rock, twist along ledges of slippery dust and slither up and down those hills through the pine forest in an all-enveloping cloud of fine red dust. By next year, all effort will be a thing of the past. I miss the delights of the old track, but maybe as an ‘old’ rider there are advantages to the new road!

*

You will have noticed that this safari is different from so many others. For half a century my travels have been footloose and exploratory and except those to Navrongo, the African journeys mainly overland wanderings. These past two or three years, initially thanks to pandemic restrictions, but now through instinct, I’m finding much pleasure in concentrating my energies on those I’ve come to respect and love as family and friends. I’m also able to share my good fortune at still being employed and well paid at my age to provide a measure of independence and good education for a few people’s future. There may be some more adventurous travels in February, when I look like having a (paid plus expenses!) contract to arrange and direct some filming in Tanzania for my American associates. That will be in a far remote corner of north western Tanzania that I’ve ridden through just once before, close to the borders of Uganda and Rwanda, around the bottom of Lake Victoria from here, but maybe only a three day ride, an area I’ll be happy to explore some more. My customary good fortune continues!

Precious’s sister Rhona, JBs 1&2, Precious, Keilah, Mark the barman, and Rach.

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