DAY 76. MONDAY FEBRUARY 25th 2019. SIPI, UGANDA
A quick reminder about my young friends, Alex and Precious: we met by my random selection of a rough and ready guest house here in Sipi, two years ago, when I arrived, filthy and elated from the 60 mile trail ride from Kitale, the other side of the mountain. Precious was horrified, she later admitted, by my state: not far from crazy, with a face deep red with dust and clothes completely foul. I’d been looking for a decent place to stay, and seen some very bad ones, when I spotted a stained sign directing me to a ‘resort’ down red dust tracks. When I saw the place, perched as it was on the edge of a high cliff, with a view across half Uganda, I decided to stay, despite the deprivations of the accommodation. My welcome, though, was fulsome indeed. Over that and my next visits, we became friends. Alex is a young man of great integrity and charm, and Precious is indeed precious, in her kindness, thoughtfulness, good humour and unaffected pleasure at my visits.
A couple of years ago, Alex had dreams of restoring the resort on the cliff, in which he owned a part share, left to him by a fond uncle, but cheated of the legal papers by his own cousins. Sadly, jealousy is a powerful Ugandan emotion – oddly, for this wonderfully friendly country, it’s often under the surface, especially when one party realises the truth that hard work brings rewards, and the other believes they are constantly being cheated, while doing absolutely nothing themselves. Alex’s ‘partners’ in the business live in Canada and were contributing nothing whatsoever to their property in Uganda but expecting Alex to keep the money coming in for them. Alex struggled to turn any sort of profit, with no investment from the mean-spirited, jealous cousins from far away. The Canadian cousins assumed that he was cheating them and taking the money, for that would have been their way. Meanwhile, the resort was collapsing from lack of investment. Alex has no money… They saw no need to invest their dollars; the place just dwindled away. The customary lack of understanding of management and maintenance.
In the end, Alex changed his dreams: he’d try to build his own resort on his own plot. He trained in hotel management and is a very intelligent man. Since last year, when he showed me his land and described his ideas, I have been helping him with his ambitions. He works in a local hotel; is popular with the customers but, in another instance of opportunist envy, his employer has taken the chance to cut his meagre salary, accusing him of not concentrating on the job because he is building his own resort. This jealousy is so corrosive, as is this sort of management. How does that hotel manager expect to engender enthusiasm in employees thus treated? Alex is diligent and popular with that hotel’s clients; so you cut his pathetic salary on a spurious excuse: African management.
So here I am, the first occupant of ‘Jonathan’s House’ in the nascent resort in Sipi. Early days yet, and it’s all a bit rough round the edges, but I have a round room with a thatched roof (based on a photo of one of my favourite lodgings in Lesotho) and for my visit, they purchased a big bed and comfortable mattress. The walls and floor are still rough cement and the bathroom doesn’t function beyond a drain hole in the cement floor, a plastic washing bowl and container of water, but I am adaptable – and very pleased to see this progress. Alex needs to be running his own business; he’ll do it well and successfully, given the chance. One day, the resort will have a restaurant and bar, a number of round houses, camping lawns and bright, flowering gardens. There’s even a three storey accommodation block in his dreams. It’s a long term dream, but Alex and Precious have the persistence and determination – and rare forward planning – to make it work. Without capital, though, realising dreams here is challenging.
I rode by the long route round the mountain, because of the rains in Kitale, although when I arrived, Alex reckoned the very rough road is still passable to my piki-piki. Oh well, too late now. The other road is twice as long at 220 kilometres but is tarred all the way. The Suam road, over the edges of the mountain, all that rough trail that I have so much enjoyed in the past, is being reconstructed at the moment. The ubiquitous Chinese are building a new road – more staggering debt that they will allow to wallow for a few years and then call in, in due course – in resources and minerals, with consummate greed and no sympathy for the debtor nations. The Chinese government, who do nothing in anyone’s interest but their own, must be laughing uproariously up their sleeves at the naïveté of the African nations, who don’t appear to see the future problems they are building – or don’t care, as their corrupt leaders take VAST personal backhanders. The time will come when China makes its demands, and those demands will cost not just Africa, but the whole world, the planet indeed. There’s no compassion in China’s ‘generosity’ to this continent: the work employs many thousands of Chinese workers, utilises Chinese technology, provides a surreptitious opportunity for China to survey the geological resources of the countries, brings them huge trade in cheap goods for sale, and at the same time builds enormous indebtedness from these countries who have no method of payment except in resources that will eventually beggar them further – at which point China will walk away without compassion. This is a recipe for future conflict, disaster, extraordinary poverty and suffering. Mark my words, who’s seen it: it’ll end in tears…
Approaching the border, I passed a line of waiting trucks five miles long. ‘Visions of Dover after Brexit’, I thought, expecting a tedious and confused border crossing. In fact, it was quick and efficient and I was in Uganda within twenty minutes or so, the Ugandan customs officer sitting on a bollard and taking down my details in a ledger resting on a redundant steel safe as a desk on the pavement. The safe appeared to have been abandoned right outside the customs doorway.
Then I recollected that this country has the worst driving standards in Africa – that I have seen so far. Fortunately, I don’t have that far to ride here, as I will visit Alex and Precious and return at the end of the week. Kenya always seems so well organised after visiting its neighbours. The ride northwards round the back of the mountain was easy, the road good, lined by many villages and with thousands of visible children, for, like Ethiopia, Uganda’s swelling population is horrifying: 7.8 children, the average ‘download’ (as Sam, in Marsabit, would put it) per woman. Consequently, there are always children everywhere.
For the final ten miles or so, I have to climb onto the lower slopes of the mountain, winding up a steep road towards Sipi in the foothills. “At least 100 people died on that hill in the last year,” says Alex, horrified. “Just bad driving. They don’t know to use a low gear, even though the sign at the top says ‘engage low gear’. They try to go down using gear four or five and go out of control. In one accident, 21 local tourists died.” Ugandan driving is SO bad… It’s not even a very dramatic road, nothing compared to those Ethiopian passes or many others in East Africa. “Drivers come from Kampala and just don’t know how to drive on hills,” says Alex.
I know my way to find Alex and Precious, Alex still at work when I arrived at 5.00. I’d been riding since 11.00 and looking forward to Precious’s excited welcome. Several village people recognised me as I rode. I am Alex’s ‘rich mzungu’, just as I am ‘William’s mzungu’ in Kessup. It’s that thing about going back – it shows respect. William said the other day, and it made me think, and be slightly depressed at the reaction: “Oh, for a mzungu to trust an African, it’s not easy…” What an indictment – of wazungus, not just Africans.
Then I was on the path to Alex and Precious’s home, and hugged in a violent grip by happy Precious. It’s exactly a year since I was last here.
Alex was at work until after eight, so it was some time before he joined us, and supper was late. We sat on the big bed in my round house exchanging news and plans for some time. Precious always over-estimates my appetite by about double and had kindly bought me a bottle of beer and plied me with fresh pineapple. Nothing’s too much trouble for Alex’s mzungu.
Bedtime was late and I was tired. Going out for a last piss, I looked up at the incredible black sky, a fabulous display of silver – and shooting – stars in this very dark place. There’s no light pollution here – not a lot of light at all, and no humidity in the air tonight. It’s quiet and the night is extremely still. “It’s always still while the rains are forming,” says Alex. “The rains will start about the 10th of next month. We may get showers before, but it’s after the 10th when we plant.” Rural dwellers know their weather lore; they need to know when to be ready for planting the next crop – their lives actually do depend on this knowledge.
“There’s something wrong with the lock,” Alex worries, fiddling with the new door lock. “It’s only locking from the outside.”
“Forget it! No one will murder me in my bed!” I remember that the first time I approached the guest house on the cliffs, neighbours were ringing Alex to tell him a strange, dirty white man was at his house, almost before I got there. The efficiency of the bush telegraph and bush security in a place like this is extreme!
DAY 77. TUESDAY FEBRUARY 26th 2019. SIPI, UGANDA
This was a relaxed day talking plans and dreams for the new guest house – and trying to think of a name for it, unsuccessfully so far. Alex, on his one day off, is constantly working at something – sweeping his new lawns of pine needles, the paths of dust, patching up the privy, washing, cooking, planning. He has the energy to make this business work and I do hope he succeeds. He actually acknowledges that only work will bring his rewards; an uncommon attitude here.
The day was extremely hot. “The rains won’t come yet,” says Alex, looking up at a cloudless hot blue sky. That suits me. In the evening and into the night, a strong breeze worried round the garden trees, much warmer tonight, so that we could sit outside under the stars for supper.
In the late afternoon, as the air cooled a bit, Alex and I wandered the neighbourhood, meeting neighbours. Alex grew up here and knows the place well. I am soon lost and directionless amongst the close growing banana trees amongst the many smallholdings. “How the people laughed when I cut down the matoke (bananas). You will starve! They LAUGHED! There’s a lot of jealousy here; many would like to see us fail; they just don’t understand that if you work hard and invest effort and ideas, you can succeed…”
It’s an abundant region, still very green as the dry season ends. “I have a lot of plans! But I know it is slow. One step at a time. Oh, people were surprised: when the local MP came, where did they hold their meeting? In my new gardens! People everywhere! The sad thing was, I had no money, so they had to buy their drinks and snacks outside. But it brought a lot of people, and those people will tell other people. Oh, we’ll get customers when we open. I know we will. I have people already asking, ‘when are you opening?’, people from Kampala. I tell them, I am not ready yet. We have to open when we can offer a good service. At the moment we have much to do: that latrine is too poor, the toilets in the rooms aren’t working yet. When we get the second room finished, then we may be able to open. We did have a lady from Brazil; she loved her stay, but she stayed in the house with us. I have a lot of plans, but slowly, slowly…”
Precious told me more of that MP’s gathering. She, as the hostess, was asked to hand out his money to the villagers, 1000 Uganda bob (20 pence!) to every man, woman and youth. Enough to buy many votes, although it’ll only buy a bottle of pop. “Oh, the line was looong! From here the road!” Precious laughed, pointing across the long compound.
My design skills are proving useful to Alex. “Build the next bed from earth block; build in a seat around the walls, all in earth block, filled with earth. Let it settle and cover it in a thin layer of cement, mattress on top. Two bags will probably do the bed, and earth blocks are cheap! Don’t tile the floors; paint them and then polish them and put down a few grass mats. Keep it simple, unusual and traditional – even if you have to invent the tradition!”
Alex is enthused. “It will be like nothing else in Sipi! And this bed,” we are now sitting in my round room on the big wooden bed, locally made and already probably warping, joints loosening, for all furniture is made with insufficiently seasoned timber, “This bed cost more than £75!” I think £50 is about a month’s salary for Alex. It’s hard having ambitions and no capital and not yet the independence to rely on his own imagination and abilities to sink or swim. “Without Jonathan, we couldn’t get even this far!” agrees Precious.
“We should call it ‘Jonathan’s Guest House’,” she chips in. We are still trying to think of a name for the signboard, the planned website, the Lonely Planet and (ghastly, lying, manipulated) Trip Advisor. My help through the year has amounted to perhaps £750 or £800. I will continue with my £100s now and again. These two deserve – and appreciate the support from far away.
At least my aid gets to the recipient here in Uganda, more than can be said for probably the majority of foreign aid in this perhaps most corrupt country in East Africa, where graft and corruption is endemic throughout all institutions. Of course, it starts from the top; from the longest ‘serving’, fabulously wealthy African president, Museveni, now in power well over 30 years, who has recently cheated all his politicians into accepting changes to the constitution to allow him another seven years – and likely president for life. He just buys them off with huge backhanders and smart cars, new houses and the like, much of it money syphoned off from Western donor countries. It’s a persuasive argument for the total uselessness of Western aid to Africa. There’s a growing discussion whether aid works at all, except in the donors’ interests – for ALL aid is entailed in many devious ways. The argument is that aid is actually causing many, many problems for this continent. Looking close to home: to Alex’s community, there’s a lethargy that has deep roots now in African culture: hard work is a waste of energy for if you wait long enough, someone (usually wazungus) will provide, to assuage their own guilt at the disparities. Self-important white people will then ride about in first class expensive white vehicles (bought with the ‘aid’ money from their own donor countries…) and alleviate the symptoms but never actually address the underlying problems. Officials all down the pecking order take their ‘share’ of the money; large salaries are paid to the top people in the ‘charities’; considerable sums are filtered back in ‘business opportunities’ to providers in the home, donor country – much of the charity infrastructure is based around purchasing those top of the range vehicles, the practical items of relief, the emergency supplies – from local suppliers in the donor country. A lot of ‘aid’ never actually leaves the donor country. It’s an elaborate con. Aid also employs a lot of the donor population and few of the recipients’. And it causes an institutionalised dependence amongst recipient nations and encourages appalling corruption all down the line. Museveni, longest ruling dictator on the continent, were anyone able to count his millions, doubtless stashed away in diverse foreign accounts, must be one of the richest men – or families – in Africa, all based on cheating his poorly educated, cash-strapped, poverty-stricken people. One does wonder how these immoral despots can live with their own consciences? Perhaps they don’t have one…
DAY 78. WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 27th 2019. SIPI, UGANDA
Just beneath the surface of African life there is so much brutality and jealousy that I seldom witness, seeing instead the generous welcomes and smiles. It’s only when I get to know people and hear their stories that the other aspects surface. Life is cheap on much of this continent, education levels quite low and diplomacy and reason often play no part in inter-tribal, and often worse: inter-clan rivalry. Alex’s brother, Cedric, a charming young man of 23, intelligent, educated, committed and informative, took me for a long walk this afternoon, to villages and communities on the other side of the big valleys that intersects the Sipi plateau. It’s an area he knows from his volunteer work for, like Alex, he works with one of the grass-roots groups to mentor and advise, in an attempt to bring down the astronomical birthrate and reduce gender-based violence and FGM.
About three miles from Sipi, we walked into a crude village on the mountainsides, rich in coffee and bananas, but very low in education and civilised behaviour. Cedric knows it for high incidence of rape, violence and drunkenness; the women travel to Kenya as prostitutes and come back infected, and Alex told me later that the incidence of HIV-positive villagers in that region is 85%. It’s the first place in East Africa that I have ever felt any sort of aggression, not a place I’d go at night. My normal behaviour is to smile and greet everyone I pass. In that area, I elicited NO reaction whatsoever. It was rare enough for me to comment to Cedric as we walked, which is when he explained the character of those villages. They are off the beaten track, and keep themselves that way. They do not welcome strangers, and going there as volunteers to try to promulgate what the village saw as revolutionary ideas, was challenging, he admitted. Respect for women? That’s radical talk. Equality? Huh. The volunteers could find little link with the people. These are ignorant, proud people – perhaps humanity’s worst mix of emotions: closed to outside influences; knowing best.
The inter-village rivalry is rough and violent amongst such people. It’s the clan system, a refinement even of the tribal divisions. “You see,” explained Cedric as we walked amongst unsmiling people, who looked unresponding, and slightly aggressively at the mzungu, “the more children you have, the stronger you are; the bigger your clan, the more powerful. The biggest clan becomes the leader in the region. It’s like that in these villages.” There were indeed multitudinous children, afraid of the white man in unusual numbers; even schoolchildren running away, behaviour that usually stops at about age five and turns to fascination. Here it seemed to turn rather to rudeness and jokes at my expense. I don’t think many of us penetrate that area. One or two people were openly rude – a singular reaction in friendly East Africa.
“Did Cedric tell you about the wars in 1975 and 79?” Alex asked later, cooking supper on a fire of sticks, as I was telling him of my surprise at my reception. “A man from one of those clans killed one from another, and the revenge was terrible. Hundreds died. They just slaughtered each other. It was horrible. Life is so cheap to those people. But, you see, their land is rich, so they have money – but no education,” – and the ugly jealous streak that’s not far beneath the smiling surface, when I listen to Alex’s stories. Those who are intelligent and educated are somehow looked down upon for their hard work. Shades, it seems to me, of the developing ‘populism’ that is infecting the Western world so alarmingly at present, creating a ‘them and us’ jealousy, accusations of ‘elitism’, a determination of the basically ignorant to ‘bring the rest down to size’ – resulting in Trump, Brexit, hatred of immigrants and the shocking fact that those citizens of Dover who spouted racism and xenophobia, wanted their names published in that Guardian article, while the more reasoned, thinking sympathisers trying to understand the issue, withheld their names. To be ignorant and proud may be a terrible mix of emotions, but to be proud of being ignorant is even worse.
Being so populous in the area – “They are the biggest clan, so the politicians go there and spend their money on those ignorant people since they decide the elections!” says Alex as he bends over his fire beneath a pan of sizzling oil in which he is cooking a delicious whole fish for my supper, in the dark of the starry night. “It’s all based on alcohol. The politician who buys the most alcohol wins the seat…”
Cedric has some political ambitions. He was explaining that he wanted to run for mayor but was laughed out of court by the old men. “You aren’t married!” they exclaimed. It seems that marriage is a requirement for office. “And they said, ‘you are too young!’ If you can’t keep a wife, how can you look after 1000 people?” These are hidebound people, who resist change because no one ever challenges the corrupt status quo. ‘It’s the way we’ve always done things, why should we change?’ Change is threatening.
I told him to persevere. But the trouble is, he hasn’t the financial backing to buy the votes, for that’s how you win elections in Uganda – right from the top: the most corrupt president on the continent – down to local mayor… This is such a corrupt country. And, of course, it’s in the politicians’ interests to keep the people uneducated: it’s easy to sway them and cheaper for winning office – uneducated people are cheaper to bribe; and once you have office, you have access to all the incoming development and aid money, all the backhanders.
A country that desperately needs the integrity of their Alexs and Cedrics stops their progress, and jealousy of the ignorant keeps them down wherever it can. But these young men have a longer view than most. I wish them well but am very glad I don’t face their challenges for change.
…Or their challenges just to get through life and support their (limited and planned) families. Life’s tough for them, with their minds opened by education and natural intelligence. Cedric studied IT in Kampala and can get no work. He’s too well educated and work depends on whom you know, not your skills. He’s living at home just now. Alex and Cedric’s parents live next door to Alex’s compound, now slowly converting to the guest house. I wandered over to chat with his mother and father. “I have three children still in university,” says Alex’s father, who retired last year (plus, I later find out from Precious, two in secondary school and one still in primary…). They have a large plot of land and are obviously quite ‘middle class’ for the region but he is still held back by having nine children. Nine! Why, one wants to ask. If he’d had two or three, he could now be retired and living well, helping his three to better themselves in life. As it is, he has nine struggling children, who can’t find work – but he is probably held in high regard locally for his ‘strength’ and ‘virility’. His wife, a cheerful, large, fast-ageing woman, sat with me for a time. We talked about age, as I am older and yet infinitely younger than them at the same time. “Oh, we used to see people of 100!” exclaimed Alex’s mother, sitting sideways on her plastic Chinese chair to keep in the almost vertical shade of the overhanging roof. “But now… seventy, and they are off… Why? Is it the food, all the contamination in our food?” I hesitated to say that she might expect a much longer life if she hadn’t given birth nine times… Then her husband came, a slight, spare man, like Alex and Cedric. She immediately relinquished her chair to the man of the house and went back to her endless hard work – as he settled in for a long, relaxed chat, bemoaning the cost of educating three children at university. Almost my age, and he’s still paying primary school fees. What hope has that child that he will be around to pay university fees? That cost, if it happens, will fall to its struggling siblings.
After our long walk; we must have covered about six or seven miles in our three and a half hour ramble, I was weary. I haven’t been doing so much walking for a while. I took a Chinese chair and sat in the kitchen – just a swept earth area next to Alex’s modest house. Most rural people cook on the floor on fires of sticks, in sooty pans and pots, by the light of their phone torches. It struck me that those who live in the dark, work in the dark – can SEE in the dark, unlike me, who goes half blind as the stars brighten. Precious had gone to buy me a bottle of Nile Special, not a bad beer, although a bit strong at 5.6%, and I snacked on fresh juicy pineapple as Alex cooked. Little Keilah, the baby, now going to two and a half, and still terrified of the mzungu, pushed the sticks into the small fire: there’s a different regard of baby safety here, where they are so exposed to fires, knives, animals, barbed wire, sharp objects, cliff edges and all the ‘dangers’ from which we would protect them – all just part of daily life for these small children. Both Alex and Precious trained in hotel management, so it’s amusing to me to watch the little niceties they practice: the glass of juice served on a plate; the flowers by the bed; the garnish on the dishes. This is still a part-formed guest house, but it has already some of the habits of a grand hotel! I do hope they will succeed, they deserve it so much. I do hope one day I can come and see the completed version – although, like all projects with a forward-looking developer, it will never be finished, always moving forward to Alex’s rare long term dream.
This morning an unexpected event occurred: my stomach rebelled. The last time it happened was over three years ago! Fortunately, it was all over in an hour. Something had got into my system that my guts didn’t like, which considering the trials I put them through, must have been extreme. Mostly, I am stainless steel down there. Well, without medication, my body worked it out and, taking it easy for lunch (Precious always wants to give me prodigious amounts of food, for she has a huge appetite herself), by evening I was eating my excellent whole fish with Alex’s homemade ‘Irish’ chips and salad, in the dark yard beneath the scintillating starry ceiling. It’s such a shame he has to work all day – long hours for a pittance from a jealous boss – but I was glad of Cedric’s company instead; another intelligent companion, warm hearted and happy for the opportunity to question me too. Very good people; funny how instinct introduces me to some very charming, generous and warm people on this continent. A happy instinct to have, and pretty well honed after all these travels.
DAY 79. THURSDAY FEBRUARY 28th 2019. SIPI, UGANDA
There’s a funny story to relate today.
Alex managed to get home from work soon after five this evening, so I suggested it was the only time I could get some family photographs. As the sun dropped through the western clouds, diffusing towards its golden glow, I tried to chivvy Precious along.
“We have five or ten minutes before the sun goes!” I warned, watching the shadow of the pine tree lengthen across the new lawn. “Ten minutes, maximum! And I want to get all three of you together, so dress quickly!”
“Three?” asked Alex, with a slightly quizzical look. “Didn’t Precious tell you..?”
“No, she’s told me nothing,” I replied as Alex’s grin spread. ‘So Precious must be pregnant with number two’, I thought as they hurried away to change from their ragged day clothes.
Minutes later, they came out into the garden, dressed in bright red finery, looking terrific for my photo.
Alex carried a small baby in a blanket. I have been in the house for three days and saw no baby!
“Meet Jonathan! The little Jonathan,” Alex said with a big smile. “You didn’t know? Precious, why didn’t you tell Jonathan? I assumed you knew.” He held out the small baby. “He was born on November 25th, and we immediately called him Jonathan!”
“Oooh, I thought you would be aaangry with me for having more babies!” exclaimed Precious with an embarrassed laugh. “You talk how the Ugaaanda population is getting too beeg and I thought you’d be angry. I know you want Ugaaandans to have smaller families.”
“Precious, you can have nine children if you want, like Alex’s parents, but you will live much better – and so will your children – if you have two, maybe three! And Alex won’t be a retiree with six children still in education. You can have as many as you want, but my ADVICE is, fewer is better.”
“Two is enough,” chips in Alex, a volunteer mentor trying to bring down the spiralling birthrate in the villages. “Two will do. I want us to stop at two. ”
So we took our photographs; happy pictures with the two small children.
“So what would you do if I visit when Jonathan is ten years old. Send him away to hide?” I joked. Precious laughed, shy and embarrassed. These are such lovely young people. I wish them very well indeed – and of course the little Ugandan Jonathan too. So much of Africa provides such warmth and love when you really get under its skin and instinctively trust new friends.
It has been the hottest of days. Too hot for much activity until the afternoon. I rode to Kapchorwa and met Alex to get my beard trimmed (my trimmer has a rechargeable battery, and being made in China, it failed three days ago. Built-in obsolescence to make me buy another…) and a hair cut in a barbers’ shop in the scruffy town. It cost a pound. I bought the hair trimmer and started cutting my own when my haircuts in Devon reached ten pounds.
Alex had meetings of his hotel staff. Precious tells me that, using the excuse that he is building his own hotel – which will offer no threat to the customers of the Kapchorwa hotel, which fancies itself as a cut above all the rest, but is, to my tuned eyes, unmaintained and no big catch – his manager and his jealous daughter have cut and cut his salary. He now brings home something over £30 a month, for six day weeks. If it wasn’t for all the money I currently send down to Africa – far and away my biggest annual expense – I’d feel inclined to set up a regular payment just so he could reject the meanness of the jealous management in Kapchorwa and get on with running his own place. I do despise this way of African mis-management, common as it is.
Back home, young Sam, a fifteen year old neighbour, took me for a walk in the vicinity, climbing the hills to gaze at the vast view that opens below Sipi, seeming to include half Uganda, an endless plain that stretches to the western horizon, lost in the mists of distance. People are burning the bush now, long plumes of white smoke exactly parallel to the north easterly wind across the plain. Many new feeder roads are being bulldozed through the village (no compensation if your fields happen to be in the way) as the population increases and more plots are needed, opened up by the new earth roads.
I’m still chuckling about Precious’s secret baby, and have a small glow of pride that he is named after me. It shows so much love, acceptance and respect.
DAY 80. FRIDAY MARCH 1st 2019. KITALE, KENYA
This has been a great day. The Suam road is perhaps my favourite East African road. It’s the roughest of trails, with the most wonderful vistas from the lower slopes of Africa’s third highest mountain. It’s being improved, which on one hand I resent a bit – for I loved the challenge of the rugged road, and liked to be able to say that I can still ride on those trails. It’s still bloody hard work and I am happily weary, in that I have exercised muscles I hardly knew I had. Riding a small trail bike, a versatile machine, on those sorts of rocky, dusty, pitted, broken, rough tracks is so much fun! I used to love to trail ride, many years ago, and before I ‘discovered’ Africa, where trail riding is the norm in so many places: just the way people get around. Now I have a wide smile on my face that I can still find and ride such rough roads, and especially with such magnificent African scenery around me. There are the smiles and waves, the calls of children, the laughter of the people I pass as well. It’s invigorating, youthful fun, hard exercise and very, very satisfying. I feel 25 again, forgetting that what passers by see is a white haired old bloke, going increasingly red with thick African dust, smiling a bit crazily as he bounces from rock to rock, flinging himself about, standing on the foot pegs, rebalancing every second as he lurches from pothole to pothole and rock to rock. And off to my left, much of the way, are views that are stunning: vast areas of the northern plains of Uganda, seen from this vantage point on the lower slopes of the mountain, volcanic pimples spotting the boundless, sweeping panorama. The distance fades into a softness that eventually just becomes sky. I am looking hundreds of miles into the enormity of Africa. It’s a wonder to be here, steep slopes, heavily cultivated; small rural homes lining the twisting, convoluted, tangled, tortuous dust track. My smile is wide and my spirit soaring. I am riding tough trails in Africa!
Two hours or so from Sipi, I stop in a small, earthy village. I need to rest a bit. Mixed tea is always my choice – I’ve learned from Precious how to make it this morning and written it down in my notebook. It’s not complicated, just tea leaves boiled for a while in a saucepan of water; milk added and boiled some more, then strained into a big Chinese Thermos.
“Have you chai?” I call to the women assembled, as they probably are every day of their lives, under the shade of the crude wooden shacks at the roadside.
“It is there!” calls back a woman. “Come!” and she enters one of the shacks in the row to fetch the Thermos.
“Let me sit outside,” I say. “I want to watch the people!” In fact, it’s the opposite: the people want to watch me. A crowd gathers; my tea is brought in a chipped Chinese enamel mug, full to the brim as always, so I spill scalding tea down my fingers. I’m used to that now. It’s always to the top. Value for money; it’s only ten pence, but ten pence is a different sum when you may have fifty pence in your pocket, not £50 like me – unknown riches here in deep rural Uganda.
An increasingly swelling group of primary school children gather to watch. They are neatly dressed but dusty – everything’s dusty here – in yellow shirts and blue cotton shorts, a big letter T stitched to their pockets. I guess they are of Tulel Primary School. There’s a curling A4 sheet stuck to the earth wall on which I am leaning, seated on a low wooden stool. The notice gives tantalising information about enrolment at Tulel Primary: ‘Hurry, hurry, while vacancies last’, the fading paper warns. To register, the parent must provide: ‘A none (sic) refundable fee of 2000/= (50p) for registration; 25,000/= (Uganda shillings, £5.25) per child per term on the opening date; 10kg of maize and 2kg of sugar; a mathematical set for P4 and P5; a pen and pencil’.
The very hot sun is almost overhead; I’m still almost on the Equator. Almost vertical, I am grateful for the scant shade of the rusty zinc sheets of the rough verandah, held up by crooked tree poles. Chicks ‘cheep’ loudly round my feet, scavenging for some spilled beans, but they are dry and rock hard, so the small bundles of feathers must forego them and peck at some maize husks instead. It is still, claustrophobic, hot. Music, not offensive, fairly tuneful Ugandan pop, plays on a speaker in one of the shacks; no one has anything much to do, except talk desultorily and gaze at the hills, thickly dotted, in this astonishingly populous land, with shining zinc roofs. There’s little forest left, just patchwork fields of matoke (banana) and dug-over red earth, waiting for the rains and sowing season, soon to come. The forests have been sacrificed to firewood, fence posts and construction – or sold to Kenya. I just rode through where the pine forests were last year; they’ve gone now. I hope and assume they’ll be replanted. I missed their cool freshness, a respite on this dry, hot, dusty road. Now the hillsides are barren, punctuated with low stumps and dying brushwood; ugly blasted heath, baking, desolate. As I rode, back there, I thought fondly of the smell of pine and the greenness overcoming the scorched scent of the dust as I bounced through the tall, shady trees on previous journeys; I’ve been this way about seven times now. Gone now, those proud trees, such a feature of these hills, many of them sold to Kenyan sawmills I am told. The managers stayed in Alex’s mean-spirited hotel.
It’s very still now; the sun beats down. It’s 1.30, the hottest part of the day. The shade of the verandah is narrow and the zinc above is too hot to touch, acting as a hot plate. A baby mizzles on a teenage mother’s back and another one suckles from a woman sitting in a locally made bamboo chair. Babies everywhere. Children too; the schoolchildren are now about thirty, watching me attentively. I smile at them and they giggle shyly. Not many wazungu stop here to be viewed so closely. I wonder what stories they are making up about me? Eight young men do nothing at all. It’s like this every day of the village life: sitting in the shade, sheltering from the oven of the sun, staring; staring at nothing… It’s not surprising so many people in this country go to church; it’s the only social event of the lazy week.
I’m high here, over 2000 metres, here on the mountain slopes, maybe 2500. I’ve been generally climbing, the last fifteen miles, and I’ll drop down again towards Kenya soon. The village, it may be Tulel, or is it Kabokwo, I’m not sure, and it hardly matters – all these rustic collections of shacks and shambas are the same – is on a dusty hill. We can watch the boda-bodas wobble by, overloaded hugely, in the cloud of dust that I make too.
At last, after half a lazy hour, it’s time to move on; still fifty kilometres or more of this energetic ride to go. It’s difficult to get up and start again. A move from me, pulling on my filthy, faded, fraying jacket, and the children whisper comments to one another. When I roll up and put in my ear plugs against the helmet noise, they wonder… The oddities of this being who seems so alien, yet is divided from them by only a millimetre of skin colour; few appreciate that. Leg over the bike, a few words of thanks to the amiable women and their babies, a wave to all the children; now at least fifty, and I accelerate away, the biggest thing to happen in Tulel, or Kabokwo, or wherever we are, this week; back onto my favourite East African road with its stupendous views.
Riding again, it’s difficult to find somewhere to stop for a piss. I drank about a litre of ‘tangawizi’ tea that Alex made this morning – that’s my favourite ginger and spiced mixed chai – plus a glass of fresh passion juice that Precious squeezed for me, and now another half pint of sweet milky tea. But everywhere along the track the homesteads of this remarkably populous country sprawl by the dust trail, and a mzungu attracts so much attention. The track seldom enters a stretch of open country and I’ll have to find a hedge by a maize field for relief. For a couple of miles the terrain is too steep for homes, the track hacked from the mountainside, Uganda reaching into the haze to the north, endlessly vast, blue from distance, impressive and magnificent, a good place to stop: another photo.
Suam River is the border village, a particularly scruffy place; two rows of lock up shacks, a scattering of mud and zinc homes, a lot of indigent people, a bit of sluggish business, a rutted dust street, if it can be graced with such a word. The border itself is crude and easy going; I’ve been this way several times and know the ropes. In the exit immigration building it’s difficult to hear the Ugandan woman through a small hole in the glass, for there’s a television – more cheap American melodrama – competing for attention, right behind me so the officials can watch through the glass, the opiate of TV to pass the day. It’s almost three now and I am the sixth person to pass out of Uganda: locals don’t get recorded and come and go, but I have to be registered in a ledger no one will ever read. Then I have to scrabble my way up the dust and grass bank to customs. Why have they never dug steps? Because no one was told to, and no one will take the initiative. I’ve scrambled this way every time now, grasping for tree roots to pull myself up to the dirty office, where an official sits at an old whirring computer and takes down my Mosquito’s details again.
Then it’s bumping through rubbish and ruts, and over a colonial bridge, eight feet wide, built in 1956 it says, over a filthy trickle that must be the Suam river, and into Kenya again. A broken gate, more ruts and bumps; more dusty customs and immigration nonsense that no one will ever check, my passport scrutinised, all those stamps and visas. It’s curiosity for bored officers at this remote border post with about ten international vehicles passing each week. Last year I was the fourth to pass and be registered in nine days! No uniforms, just old mtumba tee shirts with European shops and stores, American resorts and international football teams’ names across the chest. I wonder if all this will change when the new road gets here – Chinese, of course: I’ve passed many Chinese in wide straw sun hats and dust masks unsmilingly directing African workers on the early part of the new road build near Kapchorwa, and now I’ll pass more as I ride the new construction towards Kitale, long tracts of earth and dirt as the future road takes shape. In a year or so, you’ll be able to sweep through all this magnificent country on tarmac; pity really – I enjoy this more challenging route, it feels more like a bit of mild adventure, sixty miles of trail riding through Africa. I’ll miss this ride and the sense of achievement I now feel, face red with thick dust, muscles exercised by the crashing and bumping, fulfilled by the scenery. Pity I may never have that experience again when the road sweeps along, a hot black line back to Kapchorwa.
I got home about five to the warm welcome I have come to expect from my Kenyan extended family. The well is now dug – water at about 30 feet, the house renovation complete, the house tidy, the mushroom house cement-rendered over the mud blocks. It all looks good for Rico’s return next week. In the evening, after supper, Adelight loves to challenge me at Scrabble. After an hour and a half sitting on the settee playing, my hips have stiffened and I can feel the exercise of all that rebalancing and riding along standing up for much of the way on my little bike. But it’s a good feeling, healthy exercise, a couple of cans of beer, warmth of the family and now the prospect of a good sleep. Not bad at all.
The other good news seems to be that I may have been alarmist at the ailments of my little bike. I have ridden two days without the white cloud that was tending to follow me: white smoke of burning oil. I noticed that it tended to happen more in the morning, after I had topped up the lost oil of the previous ride, and linked that to an observation of Cor, next door, who helped me by finally fixing the drive sprocket with proper LockTite. Fiddling with the rubber engine breather pipe, I reduced the kink that may have been making the oil pressure too high, and pushing oil past the pistons when the engine was fully topped up. Maybe I have fixed the problem? I hope so, as I will keep the Mosquito for another year or two, even if I use it for only shorter trips. I have paid the money now, and may as well keep it, if Rico doesn’t mind having it stored in a corner of his garage (which he doesn’t seem to) so I can enjoy days like today: a good day indeed. Any day that makes you feel 25 again, when you are fast pushing 70, has to be notable!
Precious borrowed my pen and returned later with a folded letter surrounded by hearts and ‘miss you’s.
‘We wish you a safe journey going back home God protect you head and add you more years. Jonathan its so wonder ful that you have now becom our parent we appreciate Every thing your doing We congratulate “so so” much. Pleas take care of your self. HAVE A NICE JOURNEY. Written by Precious = Family member Alex Precious Keilah Jonathan WE LOVE YOU SO MUCH. we fell like being with you again and again and again and again and again’.
A most satisfactory day.
Many Africans are terrified of harmless chameleons
The Sipi slopes of Mount Elgon
Precious rolling breakfast chappaties
The first room completed is called ‘Jonathan’s House’
Precious and Alex with their family, including Jonathan junior
Precious and Keilah
Cooking supper at Sipi
Alex and Keilah preparing my supper
The road to Suam
The view into endless Uganda
On the road. A great place to ride!