He knew the 29 islands that speckled Lake Bunyoni in South West Uganda as if they were his own freckles.
He knew the local weaving artist who was also a widower with ten children, who would run in and out the room to peak at visitors as she served a meal and demonstrated a weaving lesson, plaiting together dyed pieces of grass into bags, headbands and small animals.
He knew Uncle Tom on Pelican Island who would welcome travellers to set up tents in his garden, cook you a true Ugandan feast of beans, potatoes and cassava, and then point out the flocks of Pelicans that sat like old, grey, gossiping men on top of the tallest treetops.
Fred, our local Ugandan guide, also knew exactly where to find the local brewery with the best banana gin, or where Punishment Island lay, and pointed it out to us as we paddled past this tiny piece of land now covered with tall, waving, yellow grass. This, said Fred, was where young, impregnated girls were left to die in the past if their pregnancy had blossomed before marriage. It was also where neighbouring, poorer communities would come to find their round-bellied brides without having to worry about a dowry.
We paddled between these green islands with an otherworldly haze hanging over us like morning mist. These islands felt like something mythological, each piece of land offering another story, and another character, to share.
Our initials transport through Uganda had been dug-out canoes. We slid across the green, mirror-like surface like clumsy ducklings, our heavy oars dipping in and out of the surface in a somewhat rhythmic motion.
Veering off the main roads and away from the manic cities had led me and my partner to a seemingly still and silent world where these communities lived symbiotically with water, paddling between islands as casually as driving to the shops for groceries.
Our three week trip through Uganda, moving in a semi-diagonal route from Lake Bunyoni in the South West to Kidepo National Park in the North East, allowed us to explore the politics we had only read about, through the people we now listened to first-hand.
East Africa’s oldest tribe
When we leave behind our canoes for a hike, we visit the Batwa community - the oldest known tribe in East Africa. We arrive in their village on a hill, on which small straw huts are scattered about like anthills and see a cluster of children peering between the bushes. Fred, coming from a different tribe but the same area, is able to speak basic Rukiga, the language spoken in that area.
“They are looking for a chameleon in the bushes,” he explains, as we join the children peering between the dense leaves. “But,” laughs Fred, “they think that if you say what you are looking for out loud, then it will not show itself to you.” Moments later we hear excited shouting and follow the fingers pointing between the branches. A large, male Johnston’s chameleon sits lazily on a branch, his autumn hues seemingly sponged onto his skin by an abstract artist, three horns protrude out of his head like thick feelers.
This is how we must live now that we have been forced to leave the forest
When the children have grown bored with their find, they lead us to their village. “This is my home,” says Bizimanu Justice, an elder of the community. He wears tattered clothing caked in mud. Twigs, sand and leaves have been pressed together to form a dome-like structure that he calls his home. Justice points to the gaping holes in the walls and roof. “When it is rainy season, we just have to lie in the water.” he says bluntly, illustrating the inadequacy of his living conditions. I peer inside and see a rock, a worn sheet of material and a few scraps of newspaper. “This is how we must live now that we have been forced to leave the forest,” he says.
Twenty-three years ago, the Batwa community was forcibly removed from the aptly named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest under the government’s claims of “conservation”. Gorilla tracking in the area attracts 3600 tourists each year, encouraging the government to protect this World Heritage Site while exploiting the local people that had lived harmoniously with it all along. And the financial incentives are clear: annual income from tourists visiting this site (and the gorialls) amounts to around $1 million according to The Encyclopedia of Earth.
The Batwa’s sustainable hunting methods have been now been replaced with petty farming, of which they have little knowledge. This has meant that neighbouring communities use them for their labour, paying them with food and keeping them in a sedentary place of poverty. They are not the only ones. Academics Geisler and de Sousa estimate that, although it is incredibly complex to know the exact number, between 900,000 – 14.4 million African people have been displaced due to conservation.
As we walk through the Batwa’s village we see the collapsed brick school which, poorly built, now lies in a half-formed rubble mass. We are asked to sit on a low brick wall and face the community which has formed in a half circle in front of us. They begin drumming on the backs of plastic paint buckets, and singing undulating tunes and words in Rukiga. They dance, clap and sing, welcoming their guests to their humble home, the speckled islands of Lake Bunyoni seen behind them.
We are the oldest inhabitants of East Africa, but we are also the poorest
Both our respect and sadness are mingled with an underlying niggle of discomfort in our role here. Is the commodification of an exploited indigenous tribe the best way to support this marginalised community? We speak to Fred about this, who slightly appeases our concerns through his own relationship with the community. “When we visit, I do give them money for their time spent with us, but I give it to the women of the community for food for the their families. They are hungry. The men would drink it away if I gave it to them,” he almost laughs. We see Fred discussing this with the women before we depart.
Afterwards we walk to the road with Bizimanu. “We are the oldest inhabitants of East Africa,” he says, “but we are also the poorest.” When we leave the Batwa it is with a strong sense of gratitude, sadness and urgency for both the legacy they carry and the threat they now face. Unlike with the chameleon, their protection as a tribe and community is something about which they are determined to talk, and to get the government to listen.
On the road in Uganda’s ‘neglected North’
After our time with the Batwa, we hire a car, which proves to be a relatively easy task. Leaflets advertising RAV4s are found throughout most main towns. Their roadworthiness might be left to your discretion though. Ours seemed fine, at first. Until the air conditioner stopped working, we discovered a slight cockroach infestation (whacking these off one’s back whilst driving proved to be an acquired skill), and the battery needed jiggling every time we tried to start the car.
We had decided to hire a car because there was too much to see in such a short space of time and driving meant we had time and control, to a certain extent. Navigating the roads of Uganda makes one feel like one could take on any road in the world. There was once tar, but it has since been so severely eroded on either side, that what remains is a type of worm-shaped sliver in the middle of the road and it is this sliver for which drivers coming from both sides of the road are now fighting. From purely observationals deductions, the ‘neglected North’ of Uganda about which journalists and academics write seems very obvious now that we are seeing it for ourselves. The Uganda President Yoweri Museveni has been criticised for neglecting the northern tribes and rather favouriting his own Banyanhole ethnic group in the Southern region.
So - if you are a journalist, then I think you might want to hear my story
We also soon learn that driving slowly is somewhat of an anomaly, and as an overcrowded bus comes flying past your car, it is not unusual to glimpse the whites of the driver’s eyes. His look says it all: “Move or be moved.” If your window was left open, your hair will fly back and your face will be covered in a film of dust particles. Blowing your nose later that day will reveal to where most of the dust escaped.
It is after one such day that we stop in the town of Gulu. We find a cheap motel and spend one night before packing up the next day. We did not know much about the town, but did notice many NGO signs with words such as “child soldier rehabilitation”. It is not long before we realise that this was a village stricken by warlord Joseph Kony’s Lord Resistance Army (LRA).
When we are eating breakfast the next morning, the motel chef, going only by the name of Cobb, sits alongside us as we eat the meal of potatoes and fresh fruit that he has prepared for us. “So - if you are a journalist,” he says to me, “then I think you might want to hear my story.”
We spent the next 40 minutes listening to his stories of abduction, of imprisonment, of escape and, finally, of redemption. He relays moments of abuse with such vividness that tears spring to his eyes and his voice wavers and cracks in parts. He is determined to have his story told. “Sometimes, ” he says, coming to the end of his story,“I see the men who kidnapped me walking in the village, or when I collect water.” Incredulous, I ask how he reacts. “When you see an ex-soldier there is nothing you can do. You have to think: 1. That soldier never wanted to be a soldier. 2. The only way to live is to accept that soldier. 3. You can one day laugh with that soldier…It might be hard, but there is nothing you can do.”
We begin our drive north to Kidepo National Park in silence, leaving the motel rattled and moved by Cobb’s story, full of pathos, resilience and forgiveness.It is not long before we begin to see hitchhikers, thumbs stuck out like flags amid the clouds of dust left behind by speeding trucks and cars.
Eventually we agreed: only women and children. Hitch-hikers were everywhere. We had been warned that it was not always the best idea to open our doors to everyone, especially in the northern part of Uganda. It had become notorious for the past chaos caused by Kony’s LRA Army, as well as the fighting between the Karamajong tribe and neighbouring Kenyan and Sudanese tribes, often involving AK47s.
The Karamajong walk around naked, and insist upon this custom, seeing the human body as beautiful
Award-winning Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuscinski, wrote about the Karamajong in this area in his 1998 book ‘The Shadow of the Sun - my South African Life’. “The area…is a vast, hot savannah, dry in the summer, green during the rainy season, the endless, remote stretches of north-eastern Uganda, inhabited by the people who so fascinate many anthropologists, the Karamajong…The Karamajong walk around naked, and insist upon this custom, seeing the human body as beautiful.”
And so, we had stop for this very beautiful, half-naked, smiling woman, a member of the Karamajong tribe, and whom it was safe to guess, had never before been inside a car before. Her hair stands out on edge, caked rigid with mud and dust, on top of which she balances a large woven basket filled with seed pods. Her shredded t-shirt exposes her bulging pregnant belly, her bare feet stand firmly on the ground. When she smiles, the wide gap between her bone-white, front teeth add to her look of natural beauty. Her entire face and body are speckled with a delicate coating of dust. She slides her hands along the side of the door, back and forth, and then up and down.
We lean over and open the door from the inside, as she places her basket on the seat and then sits down alongside it. A chain of colourful beads is draped around her neck, thick wooden sticks poke through her earlobes. She looks at us with a mixture of amusement and friendliness, both in her smile and in her eyes. We soon realise that our English is not an option, and so we communicate with hand gestures and village names. It seems she is headed to the next village we would be passing through, according to the crumpled map on our lap.
When we stop to let her out, she grabs our hands for a calloused squeeze and hops out to the laughter and cheering of her friends who sit nearby and watch her grand exit.
Crunching bones, views and future adventures
We eventually make it to Kidepo National Park, dusty, thirsty and very sticky. When we arrive at the reception, we decide we will choose camping in an isolated area of the park, with a compulsory game ranger to watch over ambitious travellers. We cook our pasta over a gas stove alongside the fire whilst shooting stars fly above us like fireflies. The only other sounds are the calls of jackals and the occasional, deep, gusty breath of wildebeest nearby.
When we finally fall asleep, it seems the game ranger did too. His snoring almost overshadows the sound of the jackal now scratching nearby our tent, crunching on something that sounds oddly like snapping bones. Needless to say, sleep that night did not come as easily as anticipated.
One day you should visit there too
Our final day in Kidepo was spent scrambling up a steep mountain, cutting our hands on dry blades of yellowed grass that we gripped to stop from slipping down the rocks. The view at the top made it worth the inelegant scampering. We sat on a rock that jutted out above the cliff face, with resounding silence all around us, save for the occasional cricket chirp or bird song. Stretching out like an expansive backdrop, as far as the eyes could see, was a poetic blend of burnt yellows, warm browns and pale greens. The sun shone round like a branding iron in the pale blue sky.
“You see there in the distance?” said our guide, his arm outstretched and pointing towards distant, yellow mountains littered with dark green acacia trees. “That is South Sudan.” That week, the news had been flooded with stories of fighting that had broken out in Africa’s, and the world’s, youngest country.
“It is a good country. A beautiful country,” he says. “One day you should visit there too.”