Lake Victoria, an inland sea.

The Mosquito is sick and in need of some new parts, rather important ones. Rico diagnosed that it’s likely (having spent time eliminating other possible causes), we need a new ignitor box, the on-board CDI box that controls the electronics. The fact that an egg-cupful of water dribbled out of it does strongly suggest that the electronic components might not be in the best of health..! Now my motorbike remains in Rico’s garage in Kitale.

So, I have to travel across Uganda to the hospital in Tanzania by public means – which means decrepit matatus, the legions of battered, overloaded minibuses. Maybe in Kampala I can find the bike bits I need: Kampala is good for those things.

I was happy when Alex decided he’d like to accompany me to Kampala. Having a local companion makes African journeys so much easier – as well as his company being cheerful. I’ve a date to reach the hospital in Kashambya, near Bukoba on the western shore of Lake Victoria, on Sunday. The freelance film maker, Amin, will travel from Dar es Salaam on Tuesday, and we’re scheduled to work the first three days of March.


I’m up early on Wednesday 22nd, a quick coffee and breakfast at home in Kitale, and then I set out, fondly imagining that if I am at the matatu yard by 8.45, I might get to the Suam border sometime after ten. Haha! By the end of my second day’s journey, I understand that the average waiting time for a matatu to fill with its 14 passengers, is one and a half hours. I sit in the sun-drenched minibus, beside open drains that smell of drying urine and rotting vegetables, until 10.30… Every moment, hands thrust goods through the window in attempts to attract the mzungu’s custom. I resolutely keep my eyes focussed on my book. I’ve the front seat as I was the first passenger for this scratched and scraped old machine: the previous vehicle was unfortunately pulling out as I arrived. I have to develop a sort of Zen attitude to all this: I won’t get there any faster if I fret, I’ll just get stressed. This is Africa, and time’s not money here: it’s flexible and elastic, stretching apparently endlessly into the future.

We wait one and a half hours for passengers, then we set off… and stop 500 metres down the road to fill up the diesel tank. Then another pause to inflate the tyres. It’s the usual routine. No planning. Cash in hand economy. What difference does it make to prepare for your journey and keep your tank full? You’ll spend exactly the same amount of money – but that’s tomorrow, and no one considers beyond the NOW. It takes forethought and planning.

The journey to Suam is familiar and not very long, just over an hour. I’m at the border post at 11.40; I’ve been on the go since 8.30 and I’ve travelled 30 miles… “Eh, Mr Jonathan, you are back! How’s your piki-piki?” the immigration officer greets me. He’s not even the one who was here last Saturday. I’m becoming a bit of a legend at Suam border: the ‘old’ mzungu on his motorbike. But this time, I’m ‘footing’ it across the new imposing international bridge over the ten foot wide rocky creek that separates the two countries. I’m recognised again at Uganda immigration. Then, amongst the uniquely friendly, inquisitive eastern Ugandans, I pad up the dust-covered hill amongst the roadworks to the next matatu. It’s another one and a half hour wait… It’s after 1.30 when we pull away towards Kapchorwa. I’ve the front seat again: I was first for this matatu too. I’m never sure about the front seat; I have enough room for my long legs, but always imagine it’s the first bit that’ll hit things and crumple. But this road is quiet, if still rather unmade for the first 30 kilometres. Then it’s a mad race to Kapchorwa. Jimmy is sitting next to me: an intelligent young man who lives and works in Kampala, whose mother lives in Suam. I usually have someone to talk to on these journeys. He bemoans the fact of the huge unemployment for young people here – but no one makes the connection with the fact that in a dying, undeveloping country in which almost half the population is under 15, there’s sure to be employment. “But we have plenty of land!” declares Jimmy, when I talk of the ballooning population that I see as the root difficulty of Uganda. Jimmy’s well educated, but he still thinks there’s land to spare. “But where’s the water coming from?” I ask. “And the constant cutting of trees for firewood for so many people, and the thin spreading of all resources? Climate change? In a decade or two Africa will be fighting wars for water, not religion as it does now.” But LAND is the one ambition for all people here; they must own land… Yet they don’t see that every new male baby divides that land into smaller and smaller parcels. “One day, you’ll each have just about enough land to stand on!” But my arguments have little effect, even on an educated young man.

Still one of my favourite views.

Not long before we reach Kapchorwa, we turn off the road up a track to the driver’s earth and corrugated sheet home. “So, chai for all your passengers?” I joke. “I’ve got food for my animals,” he explains, climbing out to untie green bundles from the roof.


I reach Rock Gardens about 6.00 in the evening. I argue with the boda rider who brings me from Kapchorwa to Sipi. He wants another 2000 bob to take me to Rock Gardens. I know the price; I’ll bloody well walk instead, rather than be cheated. I stomp off and moments later fall flat on my face over a protruding rock. I graze my forearm and knee, such that when I arrive at Rock Gardens, Precious bursts into tears of concern and worry. Sobbing against the wall, I wonder at her emotion. Alex explains later that she’s convinced some of the jealous neighbours have put a curse on me – what with my Mosquito problem and my parasites (now gone by the way). Now this! She’s still weeping as she fetches warm water to wash my slight but bloody wounds. It’s very touching, even as I chuckle. She’s much more impressionable than Alex, and worries about the undermining, pathetic jealousy of ignorant village neighbours. It’s not pleasant to live amongst these undercurrents.

Rock Gardens’ new kitchen, decorated by Alex since I left last week.

This is only an overnight stay in JB1, the round thatched room. Alex wakes me early. He’s coming with me to Kampala. We have to take a boda back to Kapchorwa, ten miles away; it’s cool in the early light. The matatu driver runs the engine stationery for twenty minutes, then freewheels down hills to save a teaspoon of diesel. We wait another one and a half hours and go through the fuel/ air rigmarole again before we set off down the curling hills to the hot plains below. “The trouble is,” Jimmy said yesterday as we watched the appalling Ugandan driving standards, “that a Ugandan wakes up one day and says ‘I’m a driver now’!” Few are trained and many have neither license or insurance. They pay the bribes instead. We stop time after time to load more weighty sacks of ‘Irish’ (potatoes) and onions on the roof. The journey’s slow… “The owner of the vehicle gets his money per passenger, but any extra load they can carry unknown to the owner, the money goes to the driver…” Alex explains. Regardless of safety, I reflect. The owners are remote people with money to invest, and they take money for the 14 passengers that the vehicle is licensed to carry. The small girl whom we pick up somewhere is the fifteenth passenger and must be hidden every time we pass a police checkpoint (AKA bribe collection point). The poor girl later vomits for twenty miles behind my elbow. Oh, it’s glamorous, travelling in ‘exotic’ places.

We all drive at the speed of the lumbering 16 wheeler container trucks on these single carriageway roads, then overtake in unroadworthy vehicles like crazed racing drivers, horns blaring. And the police aren’t there for traffic control, just to supplement their minimal pay.

Entering the outskirts of Kampala, that grind on for the last thirty miles, we crawl along. We’ll need a place to stay, so now I’ve the expensive phone with 4G internet (thank you Mr Bezos for your mistake) I look up accommodation. There’s a two bedroom apartment for rent on the horrible booking dot com. Very cheap, with a picture of a fine new apartment block and quite central. A couple of hours later, we decide it’s a scam entry. It doesn’t exist, despite the booking confirmation. The phone number is incorrect and no one answers emails. The boda rider gives us an hour’s tour of Kampala, but no one knows it at all. What does it achieve, a scam like this? No money has passed and all the information they have is my email address. We later find that the apartment block name is invented, based on the name of an Indian rapper! Weary, we take a couple of rooms at another hotel. Nothing special, too warm and with mosquitoes. Then, on Friday night, all night preaching and loud music from two evangelical ‘churches’, and a mosque a few hundred yards down the road. But Alex is on holiday and we have fun.

Alex enjoys Lake Victoria tilapia, a treat.


We spent Friday in crazy Kampala. It’s a city of very little attraction. It’s filthy and tatty, with broken roads. Crowded, polluted, the worst driving on the continent, no observation of any traffic laws. It’s an aggressive place where everyone looks after Number One. There’s no respect for each other; no cooperation, just a constant battle of wills to make a few pennies a day, at any cost. It really is a vision of urban hell. There are few places in the world in which I would rather not live than Kampala. Drivers have no respect for pedestrians, and certainly not for the boda-bodas – the contempt is mutual… Motorbike taxis in Kampala are a stressful way to move about, especially for an experienced biker! Wherever possible, Alex and I walk. Not that that’s easy either, for the pavements, where they exist, are used for trading, construction, workshops, piles of debris and parking. Crossing the roads, with bodas going in every direction – including against the traffic flow and across traffic islands and on footpaths, is dangerous. No, I couldn’t contemplate more than a day or two in this unregulated chaos.

Searching for a replacement ignitor unit for my Mosquito took us – on foot – to the bike maintenance area of the city. For this city has many areas of specialisation: for instance, for printing brochures for Rock Gardens we went to Nasser Street, lined from end to end with print shops.

“You’ve been here before,” said the rather aggressive seller of parts that we eventually found. “I remember you, with a blue Suzuki.” That was 2018! Sure enough, Edward sold me the previous ignitor unit, the one that’s failed now. A pushy, unsympathetic character, Alex whispered, “I don’t like these people, this tribe. The Buganda, they’re unfriendly and greedy.” It’s true that this region has not the friendly nature of most of Ugandan. The Kikuyus of Kenya and the Ashanti of Ghana have similar reputations: greedy people with whom to do business. But unsmiling Edward was right; I recognised his tatty booth and the mud on which he fixed the Mosquito electrics in 2018. Bargaining with him for the part, that he swears will work, wasn’t friendly, just sharp business. But I can give as good as I get with bargaining and beat him down to £22 – an original Suzuki part being £300. I hope it works…


As much as we can, we agree to eschew the boda-bodas of Kampala. They are almost half a million accidents waiting to happen. Most are ridden by mad youths with no regard for other users, traffic regulations or safety. The hospitals are full – and the cemeteries too – of boda riders and passengers. It’s a desperate business, but pays better than construction work and similar unskilled trades. And in a city with zero public transport, it’s an opportunity for the ruthless riders and a necessity for their poor passengers. God, what a city…


Living it up at Hotel Africana.

Alex lived and worked in Kampala for six years. He was deputy manager of food and beverage in the smart, upmarket Africana Hotel, one of the city’s best. I suggested a visit and supper in the gardens. He was pleased. It’s a huge city centre place, concrete and glass on a small hill with views over the horror that is Kampala. Up here you are isolated from the mess and chaos, an oasis of western comfort where you can forget the squalor of this dying capital. The moment we enter the lobby, Alex is greeted. First off, to his gratification, is the general manager, a capable, efficient middle aged woman. “She always walked like me! Fast! She doesn’t rest, back here at five tomorrow morning. I was one of the only managers she allowed in her office!” It’s pleasing to see how this man, whom I befriended by instinct six years ago, and now treat rather like a son, was received with such warmth by his ex-colleagues. Many were still there, although it’s six years since Alex left and went back to Sipi. Now he’s carrying brochures for his own infant business and is smiling from ear to ear by the time we sit down for a beer in the garden (tea for Alex, who never drinks alcohol): he’s handed leaflets, the ones we printed today, to many ex-colleagues, including the marketing managers. They all promise to promote his small business, and seem to mean it. They respect Alex, and the fact that he is trying to make life on his own terms impresses them. When we leave, after a huge Lake Victoria fish dinner, cooked by his friend the chef, Obama, he’s happy and smiling. I’m happy for that too, I’ve come to respect Alex so much. We text a picture of us at supper in these salubrious surroundings to Precious, who’s jealous. “Eh, I am missing out!” Alex is concerned at the expense to my pocket. Two bottles of beer, a pot of African tea, and two huge fish fillet dinners in this oasis comes to £21. I reassure him. He’s so smiley it’s fun.

We get a mad boda back to our rather less memorable hotel, where the churches on all sides compete through the night at high volume, ranting and screaming about God’s punishments. What happened to love of god in these conservative, right wing countries? It’s all about fear and retribution, not love and reward. However, all this nonsense leaves me cold – Alex too, although he’s more careful not to admit it. It’s just another way to impose hard discipline: does it make a difference if it’s dictatorship government or money-making churches? It’s all about control and preventing people seeing just how miserable their lives are made by those above them… And they’re expected to be grateful to god for this mess, and show that gratitude in donations to some of the world’s richest organisations to buy better luck next time round…


On Saturday, we must part. Alex still has to buy schoolbags for the children, and a mattress. He’s carrying ten kilos of bread flour back to Sipi, with cooking knives, a new kettle, lots of purchases we made in a five storey supermarket – where most of the aisle assistants were asleep or disinterested, vastly underpaid by their rich – probably Indian – owners. He wanted to take back a roll of barbed wire and electric cable and another mattress, but I’ve run out of cash! We omitted to visit an ATM in our high spirits last night from the Africana Hotel, and I can’t extract more today. He’s philosophical: at least we bought some small smellies for Precious, luxuries that she doesn’t get in her tough village life. He can go home!

Countless matatus. It’s the only way you can travel in and out of Kampala, except lethal boda-bodas. This is just one of MANY depots.

We have to get our matatus from different stations. By chance, he spots a boda rider, an older man, from his home, and engages him to take me to find my minibus somewhere across town. Here, I am number four passenger. Another long wait in the shambles of people and hawkers until I can board the minibus and start the slowest crawl in Africa, out of this hellhole of a city in almost stationery traffic. It takes over an hour to make the first ten miles (including the stop for fuel and air of course). Later, the road becomes quieter. I rode this way in 2018, up from western Uganda through the town of Masaka. The traffic’s lighter on this route, now we have passed the block of the capital, but the last fifty kilometres – to the international border – are on a deteriorated, potholed road, and we return to the African public transport crawl. There’s so little investment in this country – except to a few pockets, into which pours the Chinese money. Little of it benefits the ordinary people, short-changed by their leaders as in so much of Africa.


Mutukula is a dump of the first order. A down at heel border town of no attraction whatsoever. A place to pass through quickly, at the end of its potholed, muddy road. An informal place of shanties and rubbish with a Wild West feel to it. Mud-covered, filthy, and deeply unpleasant, especially on a dull, after-rain afternoon. The country around is unattractive too, just sprawling green bush lands of no distinction. It’s an end-of-the-world place. If I was on my bike, I’d be through in a flash and off to more congenial surroundings. As it is, it’s already five fifteen when I arrive, battered by the last fifty kilometres of potholes and squashed by my matatu neighbour, a woman with elephantine thighs and a hippopotamus bum. I’m not going further, and plod and slip through the mud to find a hotel. There’re a couple on Google Map. The first one doesn’t answer the phone, the second one sounds welcoming – although when I splash my way there through cloying brown stuff, I’m not sure to whom I spoke just now. The manager seems a bit phased by my arrival. No one seems to quite know what to do with me! It’s a smart four-storey building, the only one in this backwater, and the boy shows me to a vast room on the third floor with a view of rusty roofs and muddy yards. It’s a dispiriting sight, but as I’m only here to sleep for eight hours, it’ll do. But the room, with two six foot wide double beds, is really too big for comfort, so I get the one across the huge empty landing with only one enormous bed. Music – of sorts – pounds up from the Saturday evening town.

It’ll do…

It’ll be an earplug night again, but an en suite for £17 will suffice. It has the same character (nil) as any American chain hotel at six times the price. It’ll do. But I determine to race through this awful pit of a place when I return next week. Travelling in Africa often makes you think, what a ghastly place to spend your life. I think fondly of Harberton…



Sunday morning, the 26th. At least the breakfast coffee, although weak and milky, is Ugandan fresh coffee. The mud is still thick and cloying as I walk across to the immigration hall. The bureaucracy is fairly simple, a lot easier without my motorbike. I’ve just a small bag on my back and pay my fifty dollars and walk into Tanzania.

But how to describe the next journey? In almost five years of wandering about this continent – and, come to that, the other eight or so years I’ve spent roaming the rest of the world… In all that time I have NEVER travelled with TWENTY FIVE ADULTS AND THREE BABIES in a twelve-seater minibus! A clapped out twelve seater minibus. This is overloading of the top scale. It’s an intimate experience in which you find other people’s body parts everywhere as you contort in ever more imaginative ways to fit the jigsaw. Two hours! It’s the most uncomfortable journey of my travelling life, including the boot of a taxi in Syria and two days atop a cement lorry in the high mountains of Pakistan. This one is hell, beyond a joke, difficult to keep calm. But what’s the point of making a fuss? These people travel like this every time they want to move. My privileges aren’t relevant here in this remote place. The temperature climbs, we wriggle and jostle. We screech to halts, falling helter-skelter in a melee of limbs and bags (Oh yes, there’s luggage as well…). Someone, always in the back seat, wants to get out, so we must all contort to alight, and then we set off with a violent jerk, redistributing all those arms, legs, bums, bags and babies.

But really, TWENTY FIVE people – and the three babies. It’s madness… Just as well I’m not claustrophobic. But it’s airless and fifty armpits make for an olfactory assault. Thank god no one’s vomiting yet. Some people are sort of standing, bent double over the ones seated. The seats are too small for me to get my knees in, so I’ve insisted on one of the folding seats, with no back except knees behind me. I’ve my backpack on my knees – well, mine and some other people’s knees. It’s difficult to tell quite what’s where in this crush.

About twenty minutes in, I think to myself, ‘What the **** am I DOING? I’m an intercontinental designer on contract and I’m almost 74. AND I’M ON EXPENSES!!! What the **** am I trying to prove?’ Of course, I know the answer to that question, so do you. Challenge… I’m never going to give up, am I?

The 50 mile ride cost £1.43. And I travelled from Kenya, right across Uganda, almost 400 miles, for £18.

And I’m on EXPENSES..!

No one of my colleagues would consider to travel like this. They’d fly in and hire a car – a big one usually.

I’m going back to the border by private taxi.



Bukoba, my destination, is about 50 miles from the border. I couldn’t see much of that journey, the window beside me blanked out by bright orange foil. I could see only through a tiny slit as the landscape whipped past. It appeared to be quite handsome savannah and forests of pines. We entered (very slowly with that load) some rolling hills and eventually descended towards Lake Victoria. Bukoba sprawls along a shallow bay, a small steep rocky island offshore with a rather romantic looking village on its west side. I expect it looks better from the mainland: it’s probably as disappointingly scruffy as the other villages around. My first impression is that this is a very undeveloped part of the world, a backwater even of Tanzania. Very few speak even a few words of English, which suggests education levels are low, and people are reserved, even with a mzungu passing by, but quietly welcoming.

After the cramped hell of two hours in that student Book-of-Records competition, I walked to the hotel, a hot, steamy mile and a half.

It’s very strange for me, on my impecunious travels, to have hotels booked ahead for me! I’m booked for the next five nights in the Kolping Hotel on a hill above the inland African sea, Lake Victoria. It’s a Catholic hotel, but I have a pleasant third floor room with a balcony overlooking the lake. At least Catholics, unlike the self-righteous evangelical bunch, don’t usually refuse a glass of cold beer…

A room with a view.


I’m physically weary now, but the hotel is quiet and the air from the lake below freshly cool. Hundreds of lights glitter on the lake at night, what used to be the kerosene lamps of small fishing boats but are now probably rechargeable LEDs, I assume. It’s a pretty sight from my balcony beyond the graceful palms. I pull down the mosquito net, and that’s it for a struggle of a day.

I sleep soundly, waking at some early hour to the sound of rain on the roof. The rainy season will be here very soon.


Regina, so happy in her makeshift wheelchair, pushed by her son Frank. An inspiringly cheerful woman.

On Monday, I walk relentlessly around Bukoba. I’m feeling unsettled: it’s so unusual for me to be working to other people’s expectations on my African journeys. What do my colleagues in Boston want me to DO? I’m in touch with the lead doctor and director of the new hospital, but she’s not encouraging me to introduce myself. ‘Relax, sightsee and enjoy yourself’, she responds when I message her to suggest we should meet so I can get a feeling for the place. I’d feel more comfortable if I was DOING something. It’s my perennial problem: that White Anglo Saxon Protestant sense that I should be earning my money. Mind you, I’m actually only contracted for three days’ work, and they don’t start till Wednesday! So I wander guiltily about town, indecisive and troubled by this odd situation. Eventually, with only a couple of hours until I have to join an online meeting with my colleagues in America, and Amin, the freelance cameraman who’s coming up (by air not matatu!) from Dar es Salaam, I hire a boda to take me the ten miles to the hospital and the ten miles back again. I know I’ll feel more comfortable if I can tell the team that I’ve made some effort at least. Jolam’s not a bad rider, even if he does freewheel down every hill to save an eye-dropper of petrol. They all do it, it’s the only way they know to ride downhill. He has no English, like most of the boda riders; only the educated have anything but KiSwahili or local tongues. But he finds the hospital project, and that’s not easy…

A hospital in the bush… Access is not obvious.

Kashambya isn’t really on the maps. Well, it is, but it’s not THIS Kashambya. This one is in the bush! It really is remote. I’m not sure why Mary, the lead doctor, wants to put a hospital in quite such and inaccessible place? The last two or three kilometres of our ride are down forest tracks deep in the bush. Then suddenly there’s a wire fence enclosing an elaborate – but strangely empty – hospital compound. It’s the baby of Mary, the doctor, who grew up here but managed to get to USA and train as a doctor. She’s forceful and energetic, and has engaged the support of a philanthropist in Boston. The philanthropist also built a museum, on which I almost worked before the pandemic, but it never materialised – for me at least: the museum is fine and I was working in its back rooms in November with my young constructor chum, Scott. “I hear you’re going to take photos for us in Tanzania!” said Chris, the wealthy benefactor, passing one day, a comment that made me believe it was more than a crazy idea.

The new Kashambya hospital.

So here I am, three months later, in Bukoba, Tanzania, with a contract to be my colleague Bob’s creative eyes half way round the world. My second job on this continent, following my consultancy role in the South African dinosaur museum.

Life turns up some strange opportunities if you’re ready to go out and meet them.

The lake shore.

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