Uganda

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Orange Dust. That is all I could see through those dirt streaked windows of the small truck five of us were stuffed in. The thick, orange dust that hung over that anonymous African highway dimmed the light of the setting sun.  Our only company was the dark shadows of bodies and trucks moving down that endless road.  The sweat droplets hung on my forehead as I stared blankly forward into that orange dust. The faces of the people I met past through my mind, their very existence corrupted everything I believed about this world.  Children giggling and smiling as they played soccer with empty stomachs.  Mothers silently mourning the war that destroyed their lives as they kissed their smiling babies.   Their stories echoed through the very pit of my soul.

  I distinctly remember one mother, Chol. 
I spoke to her for only 15 minutes. 
When she left I was not the same. 
My interpreter and I sat in plastic chairs waiting for the next mother to be interviewed. We sat in a dark church made of dust and sticks in the middle of the refugee camp on a humid day. 
The first thing I remember when Chol sat down was her 7-month-old baby. Chol’s baby must have been one of the happiest babies I’ve ever seen. He was smiling, laughing, and bouncing in his mother’s lap as she gave him kisses all over his chubby face. When I looked at Chol, as she kissed her happy child’s face, she had this blank expression. 
As we progressed through the interview we came to the section about the war. She still had all her attention on her smiling baby.  She had these tears sitting on the edge of her eyes as she bounced her little boy in that hot, dark church. After writing a note I looked up to see two streams of tears cutting through the dust on her cheeks. Not a sound besides the happy chatter of her baby and her kisses on his cheeks. 
I set my pen down and said she was free to go. 
She got up and was gone.

     As we began our first day in the camp we were led through the settlements by the Dinka leaders to witness their living conditions.  There was this thin, sickly looking tree providing shelter to an elderly man resting at its trunk. Looking at him you knew he was dying of starvation.  You could see the cartilage between his bones and every tarsal in his fingers.  He was sitting under that fragile tree, withering away, his cloths stained in orange.  When I came to him I knelt down to shake his hand and say hello.  He took my hand in a firm grasp, looked me right in the eyes and smiled.  He had the most beautiful eyes.  He had these light brown eyes with dark stripes cutting down to his pupil as the light blue color of cataracts made its slow descend.  As we stayed to speak with him I couldn’t understand how or why he smiled at me while he sat there dying in the dust.  In the mist of dying he had joy.

    I was working with a small NGO, ChildVoice, to interview young mothers in the South Sudanese refugee camp in Adjumani, Uganda.  We were there to interview these women about their experiences in the war and services they needed to improve their living conditions.  The strangeness of this space was so unsettling, as the silence of their suffering hung in the humid air.  We sat together with these women asking questions about war and disease in homes made of dust as children played and laughed outside.  Every woman we interviewed stated that she and her children were sick, and had limited food and shelter.   The sole purpose of being there was to listen to the voices of these women, and bring their voices to ChildVoice.  The hope was to develop sustainable assistance to help them rebuild their community.

   I wanted to encounter social justice by physically moving out to meet the people suffering from diseases and corruption. That was why I was sitting in that cramped truck on that dusty road.  To find hope in forlorn regions is remarkable and countercultural to all the fear we are told to believe.  I left northern Uganda with a different worldview that did not match the view I was told to believe.  I was introduced to mass starvation, displacement by war, war trauma, and terrorism during this trip.  However, I experienced the power of hope that exists in all this suffering.  The chaos of war and violence is silently combated by the hope these people have for their futures and their children.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Inspiration Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

“And on the eighth day, God created Ugandans!”

Anonymous quote

In the beginning was money, which money was elusive and had everyone in a cat race pursuit.

Armed with reams of paper, several khaki envelopes and a basketful of optimism, i make my way up Apollo Kaggwa Road to the environs sprawled with the sky scrapper buildings that cast a magnificent view on the Kampala sky. Particularly, Serena Hotel, Imperial Royale Hotel, Sheraton Hotel and later in the evening, a fanfare theme party at the Speke Resort Hotel. I’m helped with the fact that these hotels are within walking distance of each other.

It just so happens that my day did not go according to plan. When you think the Marks & Spencer suit will do the talking, you are told to try again next tomorrow. I want to reach across the counter and give the smart talking lady a piece of my mind.

It seems the service industry creates false hope for her clients by claiming a ‘tomorrow’ that rarely manifests.

Not quite the one to give up, i randomly walk into the infamous Independence park (when you have nothing to do, you are better off walking); a steel-reinforced concrete Independence Monument stands in the pockets between the intersection of the Grand Imperial Hotel, Sheraton Hotel and Speke Resort in downtown Kampala.

During day time, it is a sanctuary of rest beneath the variant green tree shades and bougainvillea; for many idle folk who lack a meaningful economic activity to pursue.

At night, an assortment of legs here and wheels populate the environment such that the evening life takes on a frenetic pace. Beer and cocktails are served; glasses click as toasts are made to denote a hard day’s work now under the bridge.

Across the street, i hear hissing in the manner of a school boy to a girl who crossed his urine marked path. For a minute i imagine it is due to my wacky outfit complete with a wig.

I manage to cross the road. It is a quarter past eleven O’clock.

When i finally reach the other side of the road, two women walk away like my company was a turn off leaving a trail of cigarette smoke in the air.

The woman they left behind wobbles toward me like i had solicited her services. I find out her name is Nakky Rose. We talk like two school mates on a college bus en route to school. I solicit her views on government’s proposal to re-write the national anthem:

Kale, for me i think, gavumenti is not serious

. She weighed in her opinion.

Nze, kale simanyi naye that woman yetaga esaala.

Nakky picks her words carefully.

I notice she adjusts her skirt every time a car drives past us. The skirt she wore would be an equivalent of Myley Cyrus’ outfit (only leather black) for her twerk video complete with some painful high heeled shoes. She covers her back and bare arms with a shawl long enough to keep the bitter cold in check until her next paying customer.

Without knowing, Nakky informs me about her immediate plans to quit the sex trade to start up a restaurant business. She pauses as if to rethink her words then asks me what i think of her standing by the road side. A long silence eats up our conversation.

Soon i realize i must be on my way, Nakky gives me her number. She tells me she would like me to meet her son who will be sitting his A-level exams this year, perhaps i can persuade him to read harder so that he can have a government scholarship and she can proceed with her dreams of a food chain business, one at a time.

I inform her about my young brother, that little bastard of a man just got a government scholarship for a Building and Construction Management degree at Makerere University.

For a moment, Nakky’s face lights up. It is impossible to tell how many grams of makeup she wore that day but it is then that i notice her red lips part to give way to a wonderful smile.

We part ways, two strangers of the night—all in search of the proverbial gold. In an economy where some have mastered the art of parasitism plundering government’s resources others like Nakky go about their day to day business.

It is against such rich tapestry, tucked in myriad opportunities that make K-city a number one destination for the entrepreneurial merchants. What does it mean to be Ugandan?

Let me find out but perhaps Sir Winston Churchill had a point when he said; “Concentrate on Uganda.”

Notes:
Nze, kale simanyi naye that woman yetaga esaala:

I for one don’t know but that woman Member of Parliament needs prayers!

About the Author:

Emmanuel Anyole is an avid reader, blogger, reviewer and lover of books. The most uplifting writing advice he received was from 2001 Nobel Prize Laurette, V.S. Naipul who said; “There’s plenty of room at the top!” You can read his reviews and short stories on Africa Book Club and Mashiriki Journal.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” I thought to myself as I buckled my seat belt ready to take off into the unknown.

After months of preparation and building up the courage to face up to my first solo voyage, I was on my way to deepest darkest Africa in search of the mystical mountain gorilla.

You would think I would have chosen somewhere a little less remote for my first trip on my own, but not me. I had chosen Uganda. I was testing the limits of my mind and body, having spent weeks training to get physically fit enough for the trek (I am not a gym-goer) and preparing for the lack of company and limited internet connection (you guessed it, I like to talk.)

I had changed my mind a thousand times and given myself more than enough reasons to change my plans – the injections, having to buy an almost completely new wardrobe (neutral is not my look) and packing almost more mosquito sprays, tablets and wet wipes than clothes. However, the fear of missing out was greater than the fear of going it alone.

Unfortunately the trek didn’t start with gorillas. It took an 8.5 hour flight and a 7.5 hour drive to get me to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest. On the day of the trek, I woke up at 6.30am and was taken to the Bwindi headquarters where I was told I would be tracking the Habinyanja troop, a group of 18 gorillas and the hardest location to get to. After our briefing, my group set off ready to face the challenge.

Bwindi is nicknamed ‘impenetrable’ for a reason. We walked for four hours, tackling steep hills and with the sun beating down on us. The higher we got, the more our muscles ached and despite the cooler air of the dense forest which suddenly surrounded us, we found no relief. We wrestled with branches and dodged thorns until rustling leaves and whispers from our porters informed us that gorillas had been spotted. Unfortunately for us, they were on the move. My body – which had been weeping with exhaustion – sprung into life, the adrenaline pumping through my veins as we sped up and tried to stay close without chasing them.

If I hadn’t known any better, I would have thought the mischievous apes were playing games, twisting and leading us through every type of vegetation they could find. The ground became muddy and I lost count of the number of times I slipped and fell trying to keep up, grabbing on to branches to pull myself forward. Finally, they had had enough fun and they stopped. As the group divided to make way for everyone to see, I peered through the clearing and saw the silverback, the leader of the group, sitting staring at us as if we had just been there all along instead of trickling with sweat from our mission.

“Look! That one is only three months old” my porter said, as I turned and realised in my excitement I had walked straight past the mother and her baby. Incredible does not even begin to describe it. We sat and watched as we saw four more young males from the group appear: One swinging from a tree and the youngest playfully goading the other two by imitating his father’s beating of the chest.

I had always been fascinated by the mountain gorilla, but to have such a powerful animal within metres of you takes your breath away. All that time and effort to reach them and they sit there nonchalantly munching a leaf, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, completely oblivious to their rarity and beauty.

There are less than 900 mountain gorillas left in the wild. To observe a creature so few will get to see is like peering into the soul of something extraordinary. As you sit there, covered in mud and grime with a ridiculous grin on your face, surrounded by nothing but green and the soft black fur hidden in between the foliage, you cannot help but feel completely free.

After an hour of silence and wide-eyed human hypnosis, we began our journey back to base. Despite an 8 hour trek, I felt ready to defeat the world, capable of anything.

As I gazed out of the plane window on my way back to the UK, reminiscing over my adventure, all I could think was: I can’t believe I almost didn’t do this.

About the author: South African born, Zara Gaspar, currently lives in London. When she is not exploring the city, she is planning her next adventure, eager to visit every country on the planet. Her three loves are food, movies and travel.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

UGANDA: WILD AND FREE by Bettina Gantsweg

Two guides slash a path through branches with huge machetes, another treks behind lugging a shotgun, and we eight adventurers follow. Words crackle over their radios—“Keep going—six—moving fast.” I shove scratchy branches out of my face—thorns piercing my hands, and continue slogging through slush, tripping over vines. The Ugandan jungle reeks of pungent earth and animal dung.

Two hours pass. I gulp water, drench my handkerchief to dab at blood dripping down my fingers. “How much longer?” The guides check their radios—“Getting closer—trackers spotted them up ahead.”

Watch out! Ants! Streaking across in long lines, they bulldoze through everything in their path. We tuck pant legs into our socks and step over their trails, but these deadly creatures find ways to attack.

Heat, humidity, unstable ground, uncertain destination, but nothing will stop us—few humans have seen the 850 mountain gorillas still roaming this planet.

Struggling upward another tortuous hour, stabbing our poles into the ground with each step—the front guide turns with wide eyes, finger to his lips. A moment later—enormous black blotches cluster among the jungle leaves—six mountain gorillas—wild and free! We creep closer—ten feet away—they’re lolling about, scratching with thick-fingered hands, languidly twisting, relaxing. The female gently grooms the silverback lying with his head thrown back, eyes closed in exquisite pleasure. Deep rumbling belches make us smile, while she rubs his thick black hair, back and forth, seeking little critters, which she then eats.

The guide whispers, “Don’t touch the leaves—move slowly—no flash.” We feverishly snap photos, scouting around for better views between branches. They pay us no attention, just lie about, stuff their mouths with clumps of leaves, nibble on bright green tips and gnaw on branches.

An adorable baby rolls over and over, jumps onto a juvenile, scoots about the undergrowth, but mother grabs his arm and grunts, “Lie still! It’s rest time!” He cuddles against her, crawls over her belly, smashes her face, sucks on her finger—can’t sit still. Screeching, the juvenile races up a tree, flings himself high onto a limb and swings back and forth, back and forth. The bug-eyed baby wrenches free, darts over to the juvenile, but unable to climb the tree, scurries back to nuzzle against mother.

Sitting up, the massive silverback fills the space with majesty: silver tinges his brows, frames his face, and shimmers in patches about his body. A wide nose flattens to a “v” with oval slots, wrinkles cross his cheeks, and lips close in a thin straight line. His hands are black puffs, his fingers bare, thick stubs used to snap off leaves, and stuff palm-fulls into his mouth.

In silhouette, his neck-less, rectangular head bulges at the back, and the tiny ear seems incongruous. Eyes deeply embedded beneath an overhanging forehead, his slanted flat face ends with a receding jaw.

Transfixed, it’s difficult to believe that I stand a few feet from magnificent, wild beings, living in freedom—nature’s way. Time passes with conflict—should I just observe with delight, or scurry around recording every movement? I finally decide to breathe in the acrid odors, absorb the humidity, stick fingers in the rich black soil, and fill up my senses with these unique moments, observing a mountain gorilla family’s daily life.

When the signal comes to leave after our allotted one hour, we all grimace in sadness and pain, pack up our cameras, quietly stand, look back to imprint this spectacular scene upon our memories, and start down the mountain.

About the Author: Bettina Gantsweg is a retired classroom music teacher as well as an English as a Second Language teacher. She’s a pianist, a sculptor, and her passion is exotic travel in third world countries. Her favorite word is “why?” Read more from Bettina on her new website!

Photographs by Scott and Leja DeLisi

Leja DeLisi, Michael Kobold and the author set off with porters and guides to find Nkuringo group

High atop a narrow ridge in the Bufumbira Mountains, the visitor reception centre was bathed in the first rays of sunlight. Outside the walls were washed with an orange patina and after years of rainswept erosion the buildings had become raised on their foundations. Half a dozen Uganda Wildlife Authority guards in green wellington boots were standing in a doorway, coughing and talking amongst themselves.

Beyond them, an impervious canopy draped over a steeply concertinaed landscape of summits and precipitous valleys. Ranging between 2,600 and 1,160 metres above sea level and covering an area 327 square kilometres in size (much larger if you iron it), the Bakiga call this primeval rainforest Bwindi, which means ‘darkness’. Its full name is the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Despite being doubly warned, hundreds of tourists bushwhack Bwindi’s slopes every year in search of a rare species of the large charismatic mammal Dian Fossey called “the greatest of the great apes.” Mountain gorillas are only found here and in the Virunga volcanoes thirty kilometres due south. A recent census put their numbers at 880, which may sound low but that’s a population increase of more than 30 percent in the past 20 years.

 

I was delighted to be guiding United States ambassador to Uganda Scott DeLisi, his wife Leija, and Michael Kobold of Kobold watches – worn by Navy SEALs, Arctic explorers, and Everest mountaineers. Dressed in safari gear with our trouser legs tucked into our socks, there was no disguising our enthusiasm as we arrived at the centre.

Modern, a guide from the local Bakiga tribe, introduced himself then ushered us into the gorilla briefing room, which was decorated with large illustrated posters filled with facts about gorillas, their habitats, behaviour, and the efforts to protect them.

We sat down on wooden chairs and listened to Modern recite the do’s and don’ts of gorilla etiquette. “Should you need to cough,” he said, “cover your mouth and turn away from the gorillas. Try not to make eye contact, nor any rapid movements that may frighten them.”

“How long is the trek?” I asked, grinning. My cheerful demeanor belied a trembling anxiety. Having the opportunity to guide these good people on their very first gorilla trek was indeed an honour, but the pressure to deliver a memorable gorilla safari had never been greater.

The question was moot. Any experienced gorilla guide knows trekking the big fellahs differs greatly from one place to the next, indeed from one day to the next. Different groups in different habitats under different microclimates make gorilla trekking wholly unpredictable.

I’d been to Bwindi on several occasions, but this was my first time meeting these particular gorillas. The guidebook was unequivocal: “Nkuringo is the toughest of all gorilla tracking locations and is not for the unfit, elderly or faint hearted.”

Modern smiled reassuringly then said, “We start from much higher up than where the gorillas range and usually find them foraging in the valley in the buffer zone next to the forest.”

The trek back would be a different story.

Diplomacy and Birding

Scott DeLisi, United States Ambassador to Uganda

At 9 o’clock we set off westward under a cloudless sky along Nteko ridge. Being at high altitude, and close to the equator, the greenness of everything was excessively dazzling in the sunshine. Scott DeLisi led the way, stabbing his hiking stick into the path ahead. Meantime Michael Kobold and I hung back behind Leija, who was determined to take the trek a little easier.

Birds flew all around us, flycatchers, sunbirds, barbets, warblers, and starlings, darting in and out of the eucalyptus forests and cultivations like fretful scrutineers. The DeLisi’s stopped to photograph every new species.

“How did you wind up in the diplomatic corp,” I asked Scott, as he focused his camera on a Broad-billed roller that was perched on the perimeter fence of a farm growing beans all the way down into the Kashasha river valley below.

“I saw an ad for the foreign service exam in The Wall Street Journal,” he replied, taking a series of snaps. He then turned to me with a rascally grin and added, “I didn’t know what I was getting into. It just seemed like a good idea at the time.”

While undoubtedly it takes all sorts to make up a worthy diplomatic corp, foremost in a diplomat’s qualifications must be a stately approach and a cool head. Ambassador DeLisi possesses both these qualities, as well as a common touch rarely seen in his line of work.

“Hello, my name is Scott DeLisi and I’m looking forward to my arrival in Uganda,” he says in a tongue-in-cheek introductory video on YouTube in which he and Leija wander through a forest back home, wearing safari vests, binoculars and hats, pointing out the marvels in the trees. “We started birdwatching 15 years ago in Botswana and have since travelled through southern Africa Eritrea, Nepal and India, combing diplomacy and birding.”

Birdwatching is Bwindi’s second biggest attraction. The 25,000 year old forest boasts fourteen species that are endemic, meaning only found here. Twitchers from all over the world visit for the chance of spotting an African green broadbill among the mixed-species flocks gleaning for insects at the forests edge, or a Grauer’s rush warbler perched on a swamp reed.

Meet the Roundstones

Infant male gorilla in Nkuringo group

“You see that hill,” said Modern, pointing to a perfectly round knoll wedged between the forest edge and the buffer zone in the valley below. “That’s how our group of Mountain gorillas got its name. Nkuringo means round stone.” Suddenly a loud bark was heard in the forest. The gorillas were near.

As we started down the steep incline, between cypress trees and bean plants swaying and singing in the breeze, I noticed that, rather than one of his eponymous precision timepieces, Michael Kobold was wearing a Swatch. Not surprising in the African bush, considering a Kobold watch costs upwards of $3,000.

“You don’t meet too many watchmakers these days,” I said, shadowing his footfalls down the slope.

“I learnt watchmaking when I was sixteen,” he said with an east coast American accent that belied his Tutonic upbringing, “under the legendary Gerd Lang of Chronoswiss. At nineteen I launched my own company.” Gregarious to a fault and with an enduring twinkle in his eye, it’s easy to see how his personality helped him succeed.

In a decade and a half Mike had almost single-handedly built Kobold into a leading luxury brand to rival Tag Hauer and Omega. James Gandalfini, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bill Clinton, Stirling Moss and Sir Ranulph Fiennes – “the world’s greatest explorer” according to the Guinness Book of Records – are some of the rich and famous with Kobold watches strapped to their wrists.

Even before we’d met he introduced me to the US ambassador and his wife. “Together they roam the world looking for rare birds and other interesting species.” And in the same email he asked if I’d like to become an official Kobold brand ambassador.  “But what a life you have led” he wrote, “and what a life you continue to lead!”

I was dumbfounded. As it turned out Mike’s faith in me was down to the say-so of our mutual friend, one larger-than-life character on whom I based Johnny Oceans, the hero of my second novel Pirates. Moreover Pirates‘s macguffin – that desired object everyone’s willing to sacrifice almost anything to get – is a Kobold watch.

Now, barely a month after completing the first draft of my manuscript, in a case of life imitating art, I was trekking gorillas with my macguffin’s creator and his good friends the DeLisi’s.

“We’re making you a watch,” he said, leaping nimbly across the rocks of a dried up waterfall. “It’s almost done.”

The Greatest of the Great Apes

“We have reached,” smiled Modern, standing in the valley floor. He issued an order into his walkie talkie and a voice called out from beneath the forest canopy, barely fifty metres away. “That’s the trackers. They’re with the gorillas.”

The first thing I noticed, as we moved nearer the group, was the absence of any fear odour, which gorillas usually give off when approached. Apparently the Nkuringos were expecting us.

We were immediately engaged by youngsters determined we should join in their game of tag. Modern did his best to subtly shoo them away but they never ceased rough housing. One three year-old refused to participate as he was too busy whimpering for more breast milk, though his mother was clearly trying to wean him.

We found the silverback Rafiki preoccupied with a particular female that had her back turned to him. Gazing longingly at her, affectionately clutching a tuft of fur on her back, he appeared to be trying to make up after a quarrel. His adjutant Christmas kept vigil, and was the coolest, calmest blackback I’ve ever encountered, though he did try to twice grab hold of the ambassador’s leg.

Safari, the former lead silverback of Nkuringo group

Over the course of the next hour, as we tiptoed through the springy foliage beneath the Giant yellow mulberry trees, we saw all fourteen gorillas in the group. Like monks in an ashram they needed to be sought out in their ferny hideaways.

The last gorilla we encountered was the sage old silverback Safari, who had run the group for fifteen years before relinquishing leadership to the incumbent Rafiki. I was told he did not give up willingly, but put up a bold struggle that lasted for days. The fact that he was allowed to remain in his group was testament to their humanity. I know, we need a more encompassing word.

Safari’s age, estimated at 40 years, had profoundly altered his appearance. His hair was long, chest limp, features sagging. Having lost all his teeth, he ate only soft young mulberry leaves, and there were deep dimples in his cheeks.

He regarded us with tired, opaque eyes and a perspicacious gaze that spoke of a time when he alone used to keep the humans in line. I understood his pain. We’d both been brushed aside for younger blood, for the good of the gorillas.

 

Michael Kobold and Scott DeLisi with Nkuringo group, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda

Whether as a consequence of apres-gorilla bliss or our ambassadorial trek, but as we started back up the ridge I came to the realisation that I too was an ambassador…to the gorillas.

True, gorillas already have ambassadors from their own species, gallant individuals dispersed about the globe in zoos and institutions, who admirably represent their branch of the great ape tree. Koko, Snowflake, Bushman, and Samson swing to mind.

In the wild their diplomatic corps seems wholly staffed by mountain gorillas, stars of the silver screen and countless wildlife documentaries, watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world. But a well-protected minority sub-species made up of less than 0.007% of Africa’s total gorilla population is hardly representative. What about the rest of them?

If we are to consider the entire range of the two gorilla species, Gorilla gorilla and Gorilla beringei, we find a diverse ape federation stretching from the Bight of Bonny to the Albertine Rift Valley, encompassing ten African countries and four gorilla sub-species on either side of the Congo Basin. But Gorillaland’s in trouble. Because of a lack of resources, gorilla populations are dwindling.

“Time to step up,” I thought, breathlessly struggling to lift myself on to the next ledge. Once there, I turned to gauge our progress against Nkuringo hill. We remained below it’s summit. Above us, dark clouds were gathering and the wind began to blow. We had so far been spared Bwindi’s infamous weather, but it looked as though things were about to take a turn for the worse.

to be continued

Greg Cummings is an award-winning conservationist and published author. Enjoy his novel 

 

Malind-writing-contest

This is an entry in the We Said Go Travel Writing Contest written by Zakaria Tiberindwa from Uganda. Thanks for your entry Zakaria!

Dhow cruises, pilau feasts, the tusks on Moi Avenue, and a Likoni Ferry ride are some of the things you will see or partake of when you visit Mombasa for three days like I did. You could even spend there more time. It is the place where peculiar cultures meet strange traditions; they cuddle before they go on to commune and give birth to an infusion of customs. Yes, its traditions infuse African, European and Arab culture without making any feel inferior. The Swahili tradition which pre-dominates Mombasa is partly a by- product of that infusion.

 

Malind-writing-contest

 

While swimming in the rich cultural experience, I met an enormous beast; Fort Jesus which like I was swimming a wealthy cultural legacy. I found her taking a serene rest in the Mombasa sun in utter defiance of the ruthless scotches there from. For a structure that has endured all forms of mischief, treachery and almost untamable forms of revolt coupled with hundreds of years in existence, it comes off as no surprise that it bullies on-lookers with such an innate defiance that it carries. The former military base of the various powers; mainly the Portuguese and Arabs that ruled the Island over the years stands like a souvenir of the age so long gone, an age that in Uganda we only get a glimpse of in history classes. No wonder that the surrounding streets are strewn with ancient buildings. In fact a stroll through the corals of the fort and the various arts and crafts shops, jeweler’s stores and the like that stand on the streets is akin to going through an interesting lecture on the history of East Africa.

Mombasa is a city that carries an aura of seductive mystery. Now, forget about the Mermaid legend, all those lies about Mermaids living in Mombasa. And just in case, you have not been fed on that lie; that primordial lie, that you cannot visit Mombasa and never get entangled in a strange late-night encounter with a mermaid, thank your God. Thank your God because it is just that; a terribly good lie which no man who has visited or is about to visit that pretty Island deserves to hear.

Instead what you need to hear for you to get a rough idea of Mombasa’s allure is Grand Charo’s sweet melody, Malaika (Angel). Obviously, some have argued that it is Fadhili William’s tune and others have even called it Fundi Konde’s.  But there are those who think it is Miriam Makeba’s original creation. Yet, she simply lent the song a voice of popularity. What is more important is that Grand Charo, Fundi Konde and Fadhili William all have their roots in Mombasa which makes the song, of Mombasa heritage.

You need to listen to the song; seriously you need to listen to the song, if some of those demons that bring mermaids into your imagination wherever someone speaks about Mombasa, are to be exorcised. As for me wherever I listen to it or rather the calming bango fusions which I picked from Mombasa, I am teleported right back to the Island. The memories of that fine ride that I had with a Mombasa beauty or rather a Mombasa Malaika in a Tuk- Tuk (an Auto Rickshaw) are conjured. They float in my veins and I remember how that kind daughter of a man for now we shall call her Sulaika my Malaika offered to give me company on my Tuk- Tuk ride around the city. I remember how I stood before the girl, when we were parting ways and said.

“Sulaika my Malaika,

I got no penny to fly back to Mombasa

I know I may never find you Sulaika

but let me sing you a chorus, Malaika

Of the song I love, oh Sulaiika

I will sing of my love from Uganda-“

 

“Malaika, Nakupenda, Mailaka

Malaika, Nakupenda, Malaika”

 

I sang while a tear rolled down her cheek.

 

“Nami Nifenyajje, kijjura Mwenzio

Ningekuoa Malaika

Nashindua na Mali sina, we

Ningekuoa Malaika”

 

“You know my angel; you know how much I love you, my angel.” I quickly added just when I was done singing. “You know that I have been defeated by the lack of fortune or else I would be in Mombasa forever. And while there, I would have married you my angel. Money is now troubling my soul, and it is troubling my soul. Money has locked me up in Uganda and I cannot stay in Mombasa my angel. I did not know I would find angels in Mombasa. For if I had known, I would not have planned to return to Uganda.

About the Author: Zakaria Tiberindwa: I am a Uganda writer who has done most of my writing as a humor columnist in a number of Uganda’s newspapers my most recent stint having been with Uganda’s leading weekly, the Sunday Vision. I am currently enrolled on a Bachelor of Laws at Uganda Christian University. I love writing, read more at crazyzak.blogspot.com.

 

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Kidepo Valley was lit up by the fiery light of dusk like a son et lumiere. As our Cessna made its final approach, a herd of shaggy hartebeest scattered in desperate flight beneath us, terrified enough to part from their shadows. A strong headwind made the plane wobble and touch down on the murram runway like a rally car returning to earth. It looked to me like we had landed on an uninhabited exoplanet at the far side of the Universe.

Once a violent and cataclysmic volcano, venting the planet’s burning bowels through a cluster of fiery orifices, Kidepo had succumbed to time. Over hundreds of millions of years, the super volcano had collapsed, depositing its sediment evenly in the crater below, while its rim decayed into striking forms, many resembling wild animals such as rhinocerous and antelope. Except for a flat, horizontal gap to the East, about 40° wide that opened the way to South Sudan, the valley was surrounded by summits, some as high as 2,750 metres.

When we drove away from the airfield, the skittish hartebeest I’d seen from the air had all returned to impassive grazing. They have far greater threats to worry about in this valley than bald apes in flying cages.

Kidepo Valley National Park is my 25th East African park, and possibly the most spectacular I have ever visited. The 1,442 sq km park was opened in 1962, the same year as Ugandan independence , and is one of Uganda’s most outstanding locations, with a higher mammal count than any other in the country, yet as we continued through to the park to our camp we found it strangely devoid of visitors. Ours was the only other vehicle, which led us to believe this was also Uganda’s best kept secret.

Our lodgings, N’ga Moru Wilderness Camp, is one of only a handful of properties in and around the park, and arguably the best. By the fire, after dinner, owners Patrick and Lyn regaled us with stories of chasing lions away from the tents to allow clients access to their beds. Thankfully, no simbas were visiting that night. The place was tranquil and magical, with all the peaks of the caldera silhouetted against a starry firmament and the glow of a full moon.

At around 10 o’clock (absolutely the latest anyone should ever stay up in the bush), nearing its zenith the moon began to dim, like a biscuit being dipped in coffee. It was going to be the darkest night in 100 years. We had arrived just in time to witness a total lunar eclipse, and in Kidepo Valley we had front-row seats. Watching the starry night emerge around the darkened moon was eerie and breathtaking. The warmhearted people we had for company made all the difference.

 

Despite retiring late, when the moon was still in earth’s shadow, we were up with the birds and out on a dawn game drive before it had even set. As our Land Cruiser rolled across the verdurous, undulating graben, between herds of bushbuck and hartebeest, my first thought was to never tell anyone about this place. Here was a vast, peculiar terrain that time had completely forgotten. After only a short distance, we encountered a pride of male lions, basking in the morning sun, which Martine our guide told us was Tim’s Pride.

Boasting a dark shaggy mane one of them rose, and cast a gangly lion shadow west across the open savannah. He then sauntered over to join some sleeping friends, where he collapsed nonchalantly into the grass. Predators rule this valley.

Other carnivores include the bat-eared fox, striped hyena, aardwolf, caracal, cheetah and hunting dog but you don’t see them chilling by the road. Prey is scarce, in particular zebra, Impala and eland, the latter which UWA tried to bring back in a disastrous reintroduction programme. Hence, competition among the carnivores is high.

Martine is Dodos, a tribe of the Karamojong who dominate Karamoja, the bone-dry province in the north-eastern corner of the country, equivalent to one tenth of the size of Uganda, where the park is situated. They migrated here as part of a group who left present-day Ethiopia 400 years ago and split into two branches, the Kalenjin and Maasai who migrated to Kenya and Tanzania, and the Ateker, who migrated westwards to South Sudan and Uganda.  Karamojong means “the ones we left behind” and in many way that remains their status in modern Uganda. Stereotypes persist, especially about their lack of attire, though they’ve largely covered up in recent years.

Due to frequent cattle raids, the Karamojong are in constant conflict with their neighbors in Uganda, Sudan and Kenya, in particular the Turkana. They believe they have a divine right to all the cattle in the world. Young men use the raids as a right of manhood, or to increase their status, though the typical reason is to pay for a hefty bride price.

Karamojo: Uganda’s Land of Warrior Nomads is stunning portrayal, both pictorially and narratively, of this area and its people. Written by Karimojong journalist, Sylvester Onyang, and American writer, Jeremy O’Kasick, with photographs by NatGeo’s David Pluth, it offers a unique insight into Karimojong culture, history and everyday life, as exemplified by this description of an elder:

“With more than 90 years behind him, Apalorot is seen by the Karimojong as sitting between the realms of life and death. He tells of the old stories: the days when the white men, the British, had little presence and no power in Karamoja; the caravans as long as the sky of Swahili and Ethiopian elephant hunters, slave traders and merchants that passed through their lands; the battles between Karimojong and Turkana when they had few rifles.  It was in that time when Apalorot understood that he would one day inherit his grandfather’s gift to appease God’s spirits. He would then become a link between his people and the sky, the sky being Akuj, Akuj being God.” 

I wondered if Apalorot knew Karamojo Bell, one of the very first British visitors (though he would have insisted on being called Scots). In 1897, at the age of 17, and toting a single-shot .303, Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell arrived in the East African interior on the nose of a Uganda Railway locomotive. He had been hired by the railway to take out lions. Not seeing much currency in simba hides he turned his attention to elephant and headed north in search of the legendary tuskers of Karamoja.

He returned again and again and earned the nickname “Karamojo” for his extraordinary elephant-hunting exploits in the province. For the next 25 years he hunted in Uganda, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Central Africa and West Africa and shot a total of 1,011 elephants.

 

It was all about angles with Bell. The “Bell Shot” ensured quick death for his elephants, shooting them through the brain with the small bore calibre rifle, usually from behind their ear which he targeted while hotfooting behind the fleeing tembo. Demand for his elephant hunting books is so high they’re all still in copyright today.

There aren’t so many tembos left these days. But the decimation of the elephant population from its hundreds of thousands can not be attributed entirely to Karamojo Bell, who hunted farther into the Central African interior after the British colonial administration imposed a ban on ivory hunting in Uganda in 1909. That must have signaled the end of the era Apalorot spoke of, when the white men, the British, had little presence and no power in Karamoja.

 

Feeling adventuresome, Kigongo and I decided to return south down a road seldom travelled, the fabled eastern route, which runs parallel with the Kenyan border and has a reputation for bandits. Our first leg passed through Kabong, Kotido, and Lockchar, towns each separated by a hundred kilometers of empty road. We hoped to reach Mount Moroto by midday.

Driving through the barren scrubland over newly-graded murram surfaces, the journey was relatively smooth. And thankfully there were no bandits. In fact, for prolonged stretches we encountered no one else, not another living soul, as we crossed this extraordinary landscape of striking rocky outcrops, jagged inselbergs and crumbling kopje’s. A Nasa probe would not have looked out of place.

We reached Moroto slightly behind schedule, and enjoyed a refreshing beer and sandwiches at the Mt Moroto Hotel. With just a slight increase in elevation, the air cooled considerably, offering us a chance to chill before continuing on.

Travellers have avoided this back road for many years, but Mount Moroto boasts a must-see forest reserve, protecting a range of habitats from arid thorn savanna to dry montane forest. It’s also a birder’s paradise, included as one of the few sites to spot Uganda’s only truly endemic bird, Fox’s Weaver.

We continued south through Nakaprirpit, past the majestic Debassian range, dominated by the monumental Mt Kadam. When we entered the Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve, the route rapidly deteriorated. Having witnessed a lunar eclipse the night before we were now being subjected to its landscape.

The road remained atrocious for about 85 kilometers, all the way from the town of Namuru to Sorinko in the foothills of Mt Elgon – an area devastated by mud slides in 2010. We were relieved when we saw Sipi Falls in the distance, cascading from the highlands, as we knew that meant we had at last left of bandit country, and were approaching a paved road. We finally reached the mountain town of Mbale just after sunset, having travelled 420 kilometers in 11 hours.

 

Mbale is not typical of most Ugandan towns, in two ways: it neither grew out of a colonial station nor a pre-colonial settlement, and it was spared destruction during the Bush Wars in the 1980s.

In fact, Mbale was founded in 1902 by Semei Kakungulu, one of Uganda’s more colourful characters. He is also known for founding Uganda’s only Jewish sect. In 1919, after abandoning politics in favour of spiritual pursuits, he wished to have himself circumcised, but was told the practice not only broke with Baganda heritage but also Christianity. “If this is so,” he replied, “then from this day on I am a Jew.” He then sought sanctuary farther up Mt Elgon’s slopes where he founded his own self-styled sect, known as the Abayudaya (Luganda for Jew).

Though put together with a mishmash of Jewish and Christian customs, the Abayadaya developed a unique style of spiritual music, setting the text of Jewish prayers to African melodies and rhythms. Their proper conversion to Judaism came in 1926, with the arrival of a European Jew known simply as Yusufu, who spent six months with them and instructed Kakunguli to delete all the Christian prayers from his book, cease baptizing children, observe the Saturday Sabbath, and only eat kosher meat slaughtered according to Jewish custom.

Today only around 500 Abayudaya remain, having endured years of persecution, especially during the Amin era when some 3,000 abandoned their faith. They are not officially accepted as Jews, nor will they be until they undergo an recognised conversion, approved by a court of rabbis. But they continue to live according to Talmudic law.

 

 

 

 

 

Imagine an ancient mountain, a volcano that has been standing solitary and silent for millennia, its base one of the largest in the world, its springs feeding numerous rivers and waterfalls, its rich soil nourishing communities across two countries and where you can wander the uncrowded trails to its summit at over four thousand meters.

from mountelgon.net

Majestic and revitalizing, Mt Elgon must have looked like the promised land to anyone who set eyes upon it, especially after crossing the waterless wilderness. Towering nearly 2,500 meters above sea level, it is the oldest and largest solitary volcano in East Africa, covering an area of 3,500 square kilometers.

Ascending its gradual slopes, through dense montane forest, mixed bamboo and in the open Afro-alpine heath and moorland, the visitor encounters a mystical flora: giant lobelia and groundsels. There are plenty of primates along the way too, including Black and White colobus monkey, Debrazza’s monkey (occasionally) and Blue monkey, as well as leopard (occasionally), Bush pig, duiker, buffalo, and hundreds of bird species; Jackson’s Francolin is found nowhere else in Uganda.

 

Sipi Falls, on Elgon’s north-western slope has recently become a retreat for expatriates and middle-class Ugandans who regularly come for its invigorating waters. It’s only a 4-hour journey from Kampala, and that’s where Kigongo and I were bound; it was time to stop mooning around the foothills Mount Elgon.

We headed south on a recently-paved road. I wish I could describe the final leg of our journey but I didn’t manage to stay awake for it. Basically, from memory, there’s lots of greenery and bananas, a bit of lakeshore, the Nile at Jinja, Mbira Forest and then the steamy, clamorous, lock jam, traffic jam – damn – that is Kampala. Gee, it’s great to be back home.

[To follow our journey through Karamojo on Google Earth, download this file.]

 

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Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

By Greg Cummings

One afternoon in June 2011 a black back mountain gorilla known as Mizano was engaged in battle with a pack of poachers’ dogs in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda ….

In an effort to save his hounds, the poacher thrust his spear into Mizano, killing him. A post mortem revealed the gorilla had died a brutal death after his lung was speared through the right shoulder, causing suffocation.

Bwindi hadn’t seen this kind of incident in 15 years and it sent shock waves through the conservation community. Three culprits were arrested the next day, but at the end of their trial two months later the presiding magistrate, citing a lack of evidence, let them off with light fines. Many were outraged by her decision.

While stiffer sentences would certainly have sent a clearer message to the community, the incident did serve to highlight how local attitudes have undergone a paradigm shift in recent years.

Whereas in the past people reacted to reports of illegal poaching in the park with ambivalence, this time the response was one of outrage. The local community was quick to help police and the wildlife authority with their enquiries, which led to the arrests. After the trial the Uganda Wildlife Authority posted the following on their website:

Silverback in Bwindi

Despite the light sentence given to the gorilla murderers, UWA will continue with her program of massive sensitization and increasing benefits from tourism for the communities to change their attitude and support mountain gorilla conservation as we believe that prevention is always better than cure. Our concern now is to prevent such incidents in the future rather than pursuing this one case further at the expense of deteriorating community-park relations.

The challenge is to mitigate human encroachment and maintain the integrity of protected areas without alienating the people who rely on those areas. Wildlife authorities and international organisations tend to favour top-down, revenue-sharing schemes that attempt to buy them off. But unless the people have a real stake in conservation, the issue will never gain traction.

The Tarangire River at dawn, during the dry season

Take Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania for example, second only to Ngorongoro Crater for concentrations of wildlife during the driest months. Fed by the permanent waters of Tarangire River which runs through it, this unique ecosystem acts as a sort of sponge, attracting thirsty wildlife from an area ten times its size, including Serengeti and Lake Manyara. Swelling herds of wildebeest, zebras, eland, elephants and oryx gather on the river banks and stay until the onset of the rains.

But the migration cycle is threatened by land acquisition. Large agro-foresty companies are buying up traditional Masai grazing land along the perimeter of the park and converting it for food production, which has led to the loss of five of the nine main migration corridors into Tarangire. If the trend continues the wildlife will go elsewhere, ultimately destroying the park.

Jon Simonson, who owns Tarangire Safari Lodge, is involved in a campaign aimed at turning the situation around. He negotiates contracts with villages outside the park to allow easement across their land for the migrating wildlife.

It’s no easy task convincing the Masai to forgo the large sums on offer but Jon, a naturalised American who’s lived his entire life in Tanzania and speaks fluent Swahili and Masai, uses only his powers of persuasion. He lets them know the true extent of the loss they will incur by selling their land: not just wildlife, but also Masai heritage.

“Do you really want to trade evenings by the fire, under the stars, with your elders,” he asks a council of men seated in the shade of a large baobab tree, “for shanty dwellings in town? The money you get from selling your land will soon be spent. And then what? Have any of you been to Arusha to see how your tribespeople are living?”

Two villages have so far signed contracts. More are in the offing. Easement for Tarangire’s wildlife will help ensure the integrity of the park’s remaining migration corridors. The project also empowers the Masai to make their own choices about resource management. Like the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the Tarangire campaign takes an enlightened, holistic approach to conservation, putting community relations at the top of the agenda.

Africa now has a billion people. In recent decades there has been a major decline of the large mammal populations in it’s protected areas. Human pressure is the underlying reason, as communities adjacent to protected areas have grown substantially in the last fifty years.

The author with Jon Simonson (right) at his lodge in 2003

Something must be done.

The real challenge remains finding the money. Paul Scholte, writing in the November 2011 issue of Tropical Conservation Science, suggests “a three to ten fold increase in the operational budget of African protected areas is required.”

As a conservationist who spent 17 years trying to raise funds for gorilla protection, I know it isn’t easy finding the cash. Political instability and corruption discourages donors. What is easier is cutting back on costs. Community-based conservation makes that possible. Consider the savings when communities become your front line of protection.

But instead of targeting communities, many conservationists would still rather make target practice of them, unconcerned if their actions lead to social injustice.

“Racist vision lets down life” is not simply an anagram of “wildlife conservationists” – it’s a warning to the cause. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.

Disregard African people in favour of their wildlife and you will only defeat your own objectives, because the future of the continent’s protected areas is entirely in their hands.

 

Greg Cummings is an award-winning conservationist and published author. His novel Gorillaland is available on Amazon

 

 

 

GorillalandGreg Cummings’ Gorillaland describes a compelling and terrifying trip through the heart of Africa. The reader is treated to a cast of characters like individual strings in a Byzantine intrigue, from the pristine to the corrupt, to the archetypal and historical. When each is tightened into place and woven more completely together the story’s tapestry reveals the chaos, greed, natural beauty and power of Earth’s largest continent.

While following the story of minerals like diamonds and coltan, Cummings work exhibits a remarkable level of understanding of the issues. Richard Katz, the “Jewish” Diamond King from South Africa to New York, Natalie, the up and coming young NGO executive from WorldWatch, Derek, the rebel cowboy guide complete with boots are like Broadway Musical stars waiting for their solo to share their side of the story. Their arguments with each other pale when they become entangled with the rebel general and warlord Cosmo Zomba wa Zomba who has killed not hundreds, as the International Criminal Court in the Hague says, but thousands. Nearly all the characters are chasing the chance to restore the honor of a family member, an opportunity for bloodline healing. Lions are not the only predators in this story; crocs, revenge, and the past all come back to bite you in this story.

 

gorillaThe setting of this story is the Congo, “The place is fantastical, with all its erupting volcanoes, exploding lakes, impenetrable jungles and, of course, the river. Add human suffering to the mix and you have the perfect setting for a movie.” The issues of saving silverback gorillas, who are being hunted as food and for witchcraft rituals, as well as the drama of how to remove resources from the Earth and what constitutes fair trade are enough for a blockbuster. But add in centuries of African struggle and conflict of religion, culture and the story really takes off. The additional issues of international aid from foreign countries, corruption in the military, and various feuds, boils this story into a cauldron that must erupt nearly as certainly as the possible explosion of Lake Kivu!

gregThe anecdotes and life stories of the main characters explain the hardship and devastation of this vast land. Using the characters’ personal histories as context ….. Pedro’s loss of his entire Rwandan family living in Uganda due to the ravages of AIDS. The reader learns without feeling lectured. The “Lost Boys” tragedy of being torn from family or watching them suffer reveal how this army of young soldiers has been twisted into place. The ever present and lovely-looking yet nefarious Madame Nshuti, with a curious scar under her wig, a poorly ended affair with Derek, shows this Michele Obama of the Kivu to be a survivor but is she also a killer, and double crosser?

Natalie’s evolution is apparent when she yells at Cosmo while in the jungle, “You don’t frighten me. You disgust me. You think you rule the Congo? You don’t. When the real rain of progress falls on this country, murderers like you and Duke will simply melt away in the jungle, never to be seen again.” Many of the characters are forced to reconsider their life-long attitudes of hate to others especially Duke, who “was sworn to hate the Hamites.” Yet after interactions with Pedro, a Tutsi, he must alter his thoughts.

The moments for key players to cross and double-cross each other with arms deals, mineral wealth and loss of life seems to the reader like watching a tennis match. Which side is winning? Will evil overtake all? Just when you think you know what will happen next, some natural disaster like looming lava or great earthquakes disrupt all especially those on the river in their iroko pirogues.

In our technically-evolved world, we forget that nations have found ways to speak to each other. “Hakuna raisaux,’ said a Mai Mai soldier wearing the mane of a bush pig on his head, ‘we have no (cell) network here, but you can drum him a message, and it will reach that side now-now. I speak Balanga drum.” From far away, it is hard to understand or even imagine the jungle world of the Congo; this story brings light to so many critical elements of Africa that we should learn to understand.

Derek sums it up at one point, “You have to hand it to the Congalese for remaining so optimistic in the face of such adversity. I mean, these people have nothing: no government, no institutions, no infrastructure, nothing. Yet they still have a touching belief that great things will happen in Congo.”

Lisa Niver Rajna, Greg Cummings, Batman and Richard Bangs

On a personal note, I met the author, Greg Cummings, at a private screening in Bel Air. His astonishing first-hand knowledge of Africa, the gorillas and all the players in the madhouse of the jungle make this moving story very real. I know that his efforts to improve mining conditions and also help the gorillas have made for some of the best on-the-ground advocacy from the region. My elementary school students and I were fortunate to have him come and share his passionate intensity with us. We look forward to being part of the grassroots solution with creating more gorilla-friendly electronic devices, like cell phones and computers. Perhaps we can help to save this unique animal and even learn how to save ourselves.

Article first published as Gorillaland by Greg Cummings on Technorati.