Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #11: Conversations in Bugongi

Mist, fading sunshine and lens flare over the trees of Bugongi, Kabale.

Wednesday 8th April 2015 - 5pm

When lunch at Kigezi High School was over, I led the group down the precipitous hillside path, across the playing fields between the cows, and into the Bugongi area of Kabale. 

This area is still one that I know very little about, yet, every morning, it is the part of Kabale that I see emerging first from the mist as I look over my balcony at Green Hills Hotel. 

Its relatively enigmatic status, to your average mzungu at least, means that as an area I had no real judgement of the place, just the general assumption that this quater may be less well off than other areas of the town. Indeed, this was my first observation of the place in 2009 when William Blake’s mind came to my mind. 

I sent the group off towards the town in order to visit Royal Supermarket and I departed in a different direction to rendezvous with Liz to head to Phionah’s house along the Bugongi Road.

There are many small traders along the side of the road: ‘pork joints’, small bars and shops selling various oddments. Children were wandering along as they headed home. Boda-bodas rattled past over the rough red road, darting in between the slower moving bicycles and pedestrians. Livestock meandered aimlessy and freely amongst the myriad pathways and byways of the area. 

We reached a slightly newer row of shops and from behind a corrugate iron gate Phionah emerged. 

A few years back, Phionah had had to seriously face the prospect of being unable to attend University. As a result of not having been able to pay a certain administrative fee, money her parents didn’t have, she wasn’t allowed to have the official transcript of her Senior 6 results. Without this information, no university would accept her. 

In the end Liz, frustrated with the lunacy of the situation, paid off the fees meaning that she was finally accepted onto a nursing course at uni. 

A few years of studying and an internship later, Phionah now resides in Kampala along with a dentist and a pharmacist in a shared house – surely a perfect polyclinic waiting to happen

Her parents’ house was in a small compound set behind the row of shops and away from the road, although not the general noise of Bugongi. 

The house was dark, but comfortably furnished. We were introduced briefly to her mother who then returned to kitchen to talk to a younger member of the family. In true Ugandan style, Phionah had gone all-out to accommodate us; Fresh bananas, butter, bread and Nescafé coffee are all laid-out in front of us. 

We talked a lot about health and naturally, as is often the case in sub-Saharan Africa, the conversation turned to HIV/AIDS. 

“There are still many people being infected in Uganda,” Phionah answered to Liz’s question about the prevalence of new cases of AIDS in the country. “As time has gone on, the government has made anti-retrovirals (ARVs) available for free to those infected by HIV/AIDS.” 

“So why haven’t the numbers of people being infected fallen?” I asked. 

“Maybe people are getting too relaxed about the risks of infection. Perhaps, in the knowledge that there are ARVs available, some people just think to themselves, ‘It’s okay. If I get infected, then I can take ARVs and be okay’.” 

What is clear is that the detrimental effect socially on everyday life and family life is profound, with or without ARVs. 

“If one parent gets infected and the other one doesn’t then the relationship can be over,” Phionah continued. “Even though the partner may have been faithful, the trust can easily go as soon as one partner is diagnosed.” 

“The worst case scenario is that a woman is left alone with her child and with very little social support.” 

After finishing our coffee and bananas we made to leave. As we were doing so, we were greeted at the gate by a smartly dressed, softly-spoken gentleman, Enock; Phionah’s father. He was a jovial fellow and couldn’t help but beam with pride as Liz talked about his daughter’s successes in her nurse training. 

The noise from the Pentecostal Church next door had been slowly rising over the last few hours, but, just as we were leaving, the power cuts and the pastor was left voiceless. Liz raised a wry smile. 

Primary school children were heading home in throngs now and Liz, Phionnah and I were swept along in the unending flow of small life calling out ‘abazungu’ as they went. Phionah found it all rather amusing. 

We walked a little way before taking a right and then a left down a narrow alleyway. The alley lead past some smaller houses before gently descending. 

The path had been heavily eroded and more closely resembled an ephemeral river than a walkway. 

We emerged from the narrow path and into a small valley covered in tall eucalyptus trees. Here a small stream flowed into a concrete channel designed to facilitate water collection. 

After walking over a slender log doubling as a bridge, we started to ascend the other side. We climbed up a slippery red mud path, reaching the level of the tree tops and finally stepped out of this small green oasis and found ourselves at the gate of Green Hills. 


Shortly after our return to the United Kingdom we received the unfortunate news that Phionah’s father, Enock, had passed away on the 16th April. My one meeting with him, although brief, was enough for me to see that he was a gentle character who had a genuine abundance of pride in his daughter’s achievements.

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