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The Bakiga Window Vol. II: Splinters in the Air

A timber merchant in Kabale, not far from the Kisoro Road.
Walking to the bottom of hill on Johnstone Road, turning into the area off Bugongi Road, past the bar advertising Pork and Beer in simple painted letters, and away from the tarmac of the main streets used to fill me with a little fear. Now, in the morning mist, I see a hive of activity and get a glimpse of different facet of Ugandan life. 

It is Thursday 5th April 2012 and I have taken a stroll with my colleague Jas through an area of Kabale that I have often passed by and seldom explored over the years. Indeed, in my first visit to Kabale in 2009, in the best traditions of bazungu in Africa for the first time, I labelled the area somewhat ignorantly the ‘Poor Quarter’. Although many of my reflections from that time are generally accurate, if under-informed, there is a lot more to this district than my over-simplification of these streets as being ‘Poor’ – this mzungu has learnt and is still learning at least.

Away from the dawn chorus of boda-bodas, and the chanting of the children from Taufiq Islamic School who vaguely recognise the mzungu in the straw hat and his muhindi friend, an abundance of carpenters’ workshops and timber merchants begin to appear from the sides of the roads, and from between the shops and houses. 

Momentarily, the ubiquity of the red earth on the roads is muted by the fine shavings of freshly planed wood and the steamy morning air is punctured by the scent of splinters newly separated from sawn trees. The town takes on a different beat here as the music of man-made tools taming the products of mother earth resounds around the narrow streets.

Without any sign of a plan to an outsider passing by, the men cut, trim and shape the fresh supplies of timber into furniture that seems to far surpass the love and quality of the flat-packed furniture that I am so reliant upon at home. Perhaps in our rush to have everything in an instant in the UK, we haven’t got the time to wait a day or two for someone to make it from scratch. If we did, it would be labelled as ‘bespoke’ and an extra £250 would surely go on the price tag.

Over the course of twenty minutes, drawers, desks, beds, sofa frames and bookshelves emerge from the flurries of activity beneath the ramshackle shelter of tin roofs. Customers come and go, arguing and haggling a more favourable deal, going through a ritual of becoming the carpenters’ enemy for a moment, before parting like brothers.

Meanwhile, a man – a youth really – whom we recognise as being part of a group of bazungu missionaries working in the schools run by the Diocese of Kigezi, spots us and stops to chat. 

If we thought that we looked incongruous, this fellow with his pale skin slowly roasting under the sun, neatly ironed shirt, pressed trousers, tie and polished shoes really stands out. He shares a few tips with us as to where to eat in the area – apparently if you compliment this one guy’s chips he’ll give you a free coke. It being a bit early, we decide to not to test this theory for now and he heads off on his way, realising that he is running a bit behind schedule to take the P3 class out for PE.

Walking along a little further, heading towards the Kigezi High School playing fields, we pass more workshops and rarely pass a building where there is no activity. There is seemingly a business everywhere you turn; ranging from the relatively grand scale of the carpentry workshops to sole women, babies on their backs, frying freshly prepared food outside the front of their buildings to be sold to hungry workers.

Far from being a place to fear, this is a place to live and to explore further.

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