Saturday, May 23, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #5: When The Road Rises To Meet You

Pretending to write something in my journal and getting a dusty backside for it.
Friday 3rd April 2015 - 11.45pm

This was the day of the big road journey. After some careful consideration involving an emergency meeting with Kevin and Raj at WMSF, it was decided that that we should push on to Kabale as soon as possible due to the terror threat warning issued by the US Embassy in Kampala and the subsequent assassination of Judge Kagezi. 

Despite arranging for breakfast at 7.45am, we only managed to depart Entebbe Backpackers at 9.30am. Some expert faffing around was one of the principle reasons for our tardiness, but the cooking and eating seeming to be a slow process exacerbated this.

Whilst the final faffing was going on, Jas organised the repacking of the back two rows of Brian’s Coaster bus with our luggage and we headed off in the direction of Kabale via Kampala.

As always on the Entebbe-Kampala road, wherever there was the most minute confluence of roads the traffic ground to a halt. Larger traffic and more patient drivers waited in line whilst matatu buses tried going around the outside, the inside and would probably have tried going over the roofs of other vehicles if they could. All this just added to our slow progress.

After passing over the mothballed railway line in the middle of Kampala, where small market traders have long since replaced trains, we turned left onto the Masaka road.

As we slogged our way through further traffic, a siren came from behind. We pulled over to the side of the road as a convoy of government cars, tooled-up paramilitary police and motorcycle outriders passed by.

“Who was that?” I asked. “A government official?”

“Sure,” Brian replied. “It was the Prime Minister.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I saw him in the third vehicle.”

Once we were clear of the suburbs, the road opened up a little and the settlements became sparser and less built-up; the three-storied buildings of the city traded for the smaller single-storied structures of the country.

Our first proper stop was on the Equator. Here we allowed the students to stretch their legs a little; some went shopping for crafts and gifts for those back home. I took the opportunity to pose for a picture on the Equator roundel – sat facing southwards with my journal in my hands, much to Suweyda’s bemusement. 

With some food and drink supplies on board, we departed after an hour of respite from a bus seat.

Not long after bypassing Masaka, we stopped for a toilet break. A public toilet in a village is clearly a potentially lucrative business and I’m pursued by the caretaker for 200 shillings whilst I’m in the middle of my own business. I pointed the slightly over-zealous man in the direction of Tash who paid for everyone. 

In the meantime, an ever-increasing crowd of children had emerged to witness the bus full of bazungu, bahindi and Somalis using the toilet. With the hyperactivity of the local children reaching silly levels we boarded the bus to cheers as if we were a visiting football team.


The journey progressed smoothly along the road as we headed towards Jas’ old family home in Mbarara. Here we picked up Brian’s son and nephew from the rain-soaked high street, surrounded by the buzzing of boda-bodas fitted with special umbrellas.

After Mbarara the road was in a major state of disrepair, and, because of the intensifying rain, the going was very slow.

The bus banged and bounced its way along the road, occasionally slowing as the tarmac came and went.

We cleared a narrow section of the road and started to make some faster progress over the potholed, but as yet unsurfaced new road when Brian pulled over to the side of the road.

He got out of the bus and looked under the nearside wheel-arch. After a few minutes he came back around to the driver’s seat.

“Everything okay? All Good?” I asked, sensing the inevitable.

“It’s not good,” he replied. “We have lost the air filter.”

I’m no expert, but I guessed correctly that this was something connected to the exhaust system.

Brian hopped back out of the driver’s seat and hailed the first boda-boda he saw.

Time passed slowly as a murky dusk started to fall over this bit of anonymous road in the middle of nowhere in particular. The inevitable requests for a trip to the toilet, a cigarette, chocolate and all manner of other things started to appear.

After just under an hour, he returned.

“Did you find it?” I inquired.

“No, but I have a solution,” Brian responded, and, armed with some form of black builders tarpaulin and two bits of rubber tubing, he set about fixing the gap in the exhaust.

After a relatively short time, we were ready to move once more. By now it was dark but our pain wasn’t over yet.

Not much further down the road we noticed a stationary queue of traffic in the distance; a snake of red tail lights in damp blackness. A figure outside on the road muttered, in Luganda, to Brian that a truck had slipped on the wet mud and was now blocking both carriageways.

It took around 45 minutes for a group of guys with shovels and torches to dig the truck out of the hole, but this still left it floundering on one side of the road, sinking ever lower in the mud as its wheels tried to find purchase. The oncoming queue of traffic saw its chance and like a predatory anaconda started weaving truculently through the gap. We could only sit and wait as an unending stream of headlights came towards us.


When we got to Ntungamo we stopped at a petrol station for a toilet break and a morale-boosting pile of Cadbury’s chocolate.

Ntungamo was our last major hurdle. The time was now 8.30pm and we had plenty of travelling left to do, but the roads were smooth and peaceful; our only company seemed to be Congolese trucks and the occasional car.

Not far outside of the town, the road became akin to the inspiration for The Beatles’ song about a ‘Long and Winding Road’. Jas made the joke; the audience were too young to laugh.

Morale stayed amazingly high, all things considered, and the group continued to sing all the way to Kabale, with Khadija showcasing her hidden vocal skills and latent potential to become Algeria’s first country music superstar.

At the sight of Taufiq Islamic School on the edge of Kabale, we knew we’d made it at last. The clock read 11.00pm. This indicated a late dinner, but at least a comfy bed to lie down in.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Matchsticks on the Shore

Grey skies and fishing boats, Bognor Regis in West Sussex.
On a field trip to Bognor Regis with Year 9 I was tasked with the job of leading a session on coastal poetry. After reading the poem 'The Sea' by James Reeves, we embarked on seeking inspiration by walking over the shingle and out into the sea.

Here's the sum total of my efforts, written into my red Uganda Moleskine, whilst standing in the cold English Channel under grey skies.
[This poem has been removed whilst it is entered into a competition]

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #4: On The Beach

When lakes in Wales are your only point of reference, Lake Victoria is an ocean.
Thursday 2nd April 2015 - 8pm

After we’d settled into Entebbe Backpackers Hostel, Tash and I went off to change money – not a simple process when the bank clerks don’t seem to like explaining the procedure.

Upon returning to the hostel there was just enough time for a shower before getting back on board Brian’s bus and setting off for Lake Victoria.

Once en route, I told Brian to head to ‘Imperial Beach’ and so he drove us the short distance to Imperial Beach Resort. When we arrived, something wasn’t quite right. If you ever ask me to remember something useful like a phone number I cannot do it; ask me to recall something visual and I usually can.

After a brief chat with an unimpressed female security guard we performed a rapid u-turn, trying to avoid letting anyone know about the mix-up, and proceeded to the different, yet remarkably similarly named Imperial Resort Beach. As soon as we arrived we knew we were where we should be. Brian and I looked at each other and laughed. We were supposed to be the experts in this scenario.

By the time we arrived the sun had done most of its setting and was covering just a small part of the beach. With Entebbe being on the north-western edge of Lake Victoria, it faces out eastwards and thus the sunset was behind us.

All along the beach there were a number of people playing with volleyballs and footballs, almost all of them local. Further in the distance, along the beach, young Ugandans were walking gingerly alongside each other, away from the gaze of adults or other prying eyes, but still not holding hands.

Our group settled on the seats near the water’s edge and immediately started dipping their feet into the lake – despite dispensing with Grigorios’ advice not to. 

I ordered drinks for everyone from a sleepy waiter and there was a sense of collective relief that we were in Uganda, with food and beds waiting for us far away from airports and aeroplane food.

Amongst the people, seemingly patrolling the beach, were flocks of awkward looking marabou storks. These birds are the complete antithesis of Uganda’s national bird, the grey crested crane. They look like a cross between vultures and sunburnt old men, and caused excitement and fear in equal measure amongst the group of students.

As I went to check on the status of the drinks order, I saw the form of a woman hiding behind a large pair of geek glasses. It was my long-time Twitter contact Evelyn Masaba who I’d had to call upon to chase the manager of our accommodation after they’d taken too long responding to my emails.

As I walked closer I saw that she was deep in discussion, to put it politely, with the security guard at the gate. She clearly wasn’t in the mood to hand over her ID card when she’d never been asked to before. Although she is shorter than both the security guard and me, she struck a certain degree of fear into both of us as she made her case.

Once the group’s drinks were finally sorted, Evelyn and I headed to the bar away from the main group and ordered Tonic water – the sense of which only dawned on me later when I remembered that a key ingredient in it is quinine, a chemical used to treat malaria.

There’s always the risk when you first meet someone in person that after the initial phatic talk and general jibber-jabber calms down, the awkwardness will creep in. Luckily this wasn’t the case.

She was an amusing character and took the time to enquire about my life in the UK, to translate the Ugandan news for me and to punctuate all of this with gentle mockery of me and my mzungu ways.

The only element of awkwardness came when she pointed out that the staff would likely compare us to all of the black women with white men sat around the grounds of the resort.

Sure enough, in various parts of the gardens and corners of the bar there were middle-aged white men sat with young Ugandan women; wine flowing and food being ignored in favour of tactile demonstrations of mutual affection. It was hard not to make certain assumptions, but equally none of my business.

After what amounted to just a brief hour, the group started to congregate ready to take the bus back to the hostel.

I walked Evelyn to her boda-boda and asked, “Surely you’re not going to take that all the way back, are you?”

“No,” she replied. This time she chose to travel back to Kampala in the relative luxury of a matatu.

I waved goodbye, boarded the bus and Brian drove us back for a much-needed night of food, Sister Act 2 and sleep.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #3: Hurry Up and Wait

Behind schedule and back down to earth in Entebbe.
Thursday 2nd April 2015 - 3pm

For the second year running the connecting Ethiopian Airlines plane was late leaving Addis Ababa. This year the delay occurred as a result of Yemeni airspace being closed because of Saudi Arabian airstrikes against Houthi rebel positions.

Having been lured into a false sense of security, sat around drinking buna with Jas in a haze of frankincense smoke, a call went out: “could all passengers for flight ET330 to Entebbe please board the plane.”

Gripped by a sudden sense of panic, we rushed to get through security and onto the plane, gathering students as we went, only to find we were not the last to reach the plane. After around fifteen minutes sat on the tarmac, a swathe of Ugandan passengers boarded. 

I was sat writing in my journal, all the time being rhythmically elbowed by the woman in the seat next to me, when the man the other side of me started shouting, “Why haven’t you taken that man’s walking stick? It is a potential weapon!”

The old man in question hardly looked physically able enough to cause any real trouble with his stick and the Ethiopian air stewardess stood looking nonplussed. The man repeated himself a little louder and finally the stewardess acquiesced and took it away from the old man.

I understood his sentiments. I think.

After a few more minutes of writing, the man next to me took hold of his sick bag and wrote on it, “Where are you from?”

“London,” I replied audibly, not wanting to get into a strange written exchange. “And you?”

“I am a Ugandan,” he said proudly, “but I am travelling from Sudan.”

“South Sudan?”

“No, from Khartoum. I am working for the United Nations there. I am a trained engineer in water and irrigation projects, and I’ve been working for the UN for seven years.”

The whole time that he was talking, he wrote down key facts like “Sudan” and “7 years” on to the sick bag; a strange form of subtitling. 

I asked him where in Sudan he works.

“Darfur,” he answered. It is a name that for many months back in 2003 filled news bulletins because of vicious attacks by the Janjaweed militia and the resulting rise in internally displaced people. 

As with so many other stories the media seemed to forget about it and moved on to new stories, taking the spotlight of attention away whilst people in the region continued to suffer.

I asked him what Darfur is like now.

“It is in a state of relative peace,” he answered, “but it is unpredictable. You can never be sure what will happen. I work there for six weeks at a time, protected by guards, then have a week off. You are never really sure how stable things will remain while you are there.”

I enquired about whether he has a family.

“I have a wife and two young boys,” he said, showing me some pictures of two cheeky-looking little boys posing next to a shiny new motorbike.

“Do they not worry for you?”

“Sure, but the pay is good and means that I will always be able to afford the best for them. If I worked in Uganda doing a similar job, it would not be the same.”

Eric, as I discovered his name was when I saw his official UN passport, is a good travelling companion. He waxed lyrical on topics ranging from corruption, to infrastructure and small businesses, often punctuating the conversation with critiques of the pilot’s flying style.

In no time at all, albeit one hour late, we arrived in Entebbe.

Upon disembarkation there was a new form to fill; the Ebola screening form. We then moved on to have our temperatures checked by what looked like a small white handgun before heading to immigration.

Here, almost as expected, two students were selected to be ‘screened’. Huda and Idil, both girls of Somali descent, were asked to wait in a separate area.

Armed with a full range of documents, I went with them to wait. Tash joined us and we presented the relevant documents to prove that the two girls are A level students, under-18 and that we were legally obliged to stay with them.

Our friendly yet truculent manner panicked the guards and immigration officers. They argued that they were just doing their jobs and then argued with each other over who could fill the forms in the quickest.

Their supervisor came over and said, “Get it done and get them out of here.”

He was clearly worried that our being there might expose something that the immigration service weren’t keen about us knowing, or simply that it might look bad.

When we were done, Tash asked, “What is the criteria for selection? Age? Place of birth? Name?”

One man answered, “Just understand it is a procedure. It is random. You don’t have to worry.”

I pointed out that I’d been to Uganda seven times and by the law of averages I should have been selected for screening by now.

A second man smiled. He knew what we were getting at.

“Sometimes it is best not to ask,” he said. “Different people have different profiles.”

That said it all really.

We proceeded to baggage reclaim, explaining to the girls that their first experience of being racially-profiled should be considered a learning experience. I think they understood this, even if it wasn't the perfect way to arrive.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...