Uganda Visit 2013 – Part 1
The newest member of our team, Nick Ives, recently paid his first visit to our work in Uganda. He’ll be sharing his thoughts in a series of blog posts;
1: Journey to Jinja
Having only recently joined The Busoga Trust I had not expected to visit the front line for a few months or at least until the ropes had been well and truly grasped. However, early one Tuesday morning, upon leaving the communicative barriers of Monument tube station, I received a call from our incumbent director, who also happens to be our founder and all round charitable machine, Canon Andrew Pearson. ‘Nick!’ He proclaimed, ‘I have taken the liberty of booking you onto a flight with me next week, I hope that’s OK?’ Unfortunately my diary had been bulging for some time and the small matter of a trip to France was getting in the way. After a short period of deliberation and a little bout of consternation the trip was agreed, I would return to my home in Manchester on a flight from Bordeaux, get packed, inoculate myself to an acceptable standard and then depart for Heathrow where a connecting flight would carry my body over the Dolomite mountains, across the azure blue of the Sicilian island seas, through the heart of Libya and down the arid plains of the Saharan desert, finally returning to earth in the heart of equatorial East Africa.
The return to earth consisted of the smooth re acquaintance of two hugely oversized rubber wheels with a robust and well-used strip of tarmac; a strip nestled between the lapping shores of Lake Victoria and the dense patches of lush vegetation that dot the Ugandan landscape. Twenty hours after leaving the confines of my home I found myself taxiing along a runway in a part of the world that, until this point, had somehow managed to escape my attentions.
It is funny how the body reacts to such travails, 4 hours sleep in 48, new country, new culture, and a heavy bag on your shoulders. One might expect, and naturally so, that such exertions would result in nothing more than a terrible bout of grumpiness but, they don’t, one simply opens their eyes and looks around. The external stimulus of a country like Uganda is so great that no human being could fail to be impressed by its colour, its vibrancy, it’s general being. Allowing room for errors made in tiredness, I would say it took me all of about twenty minutes (obviously you can discount the time spent in customs, no man alive can declare their love for that inglorious yet necessary process) to fall for the country and the rugged uniqueness of its charms. All it takes is a little time detached from the comfort of familiarity before one soon realises that the variety and richness of life is so much greater than one could imagine.
I stepped on to the busy concourse which, serving the two major flights to arrive that day, perplexingly both at the same time, was a place for hustle and brinkmanship, each man for himself in a race to the outside world and to the promise of fresh air. Once through the doors I was greeted not only by the horizon of a glistening lake Victoria and by palms so heavy they creaked and bowed under their own weight, but by a man with as much strength as the aforementioned palms, the trust’s most loyal transport manager, Emma (Emmanuel to you and I). An avuncular character with a sunshine-warm smile Emma waited patiently amongst a swarm of greeters whose days had doubtless begun at an hour no reasonable person would consider human. A small plaque bearing my name, lofted above his frame tussled with the myriad other boards, placards and scraps of paper displaying all manner of distant names, half names and pseudonyms from across the globe. As I traversed the welcoming obstacles I caught Emma’s eye, forged a path through the chaos and out into the light of the new day. It must be said that I was no less than delighted to meet such a soul at this stage of my journey, such a friendly welcome swiftly assuaged any fears and set the tone for the coming weeks. As we ambled toward the car I took one last look around and it struck me that many of the collected, disparate rabble of strangers may already be forming embryonic friendships; friendships built on the back of a misspelled name scribbled on a scrap of paper, this world is clearly a place for inauspicious beginnings.
We jumped in to Emma’s car and trundled at a 10% of my evening speed, something my velocotized body was more than happy to accommodate. The warm morning sun was breaking through the trees, the faint wafts of the dewy leaves flittered through the car. I fetched a bottle of water from my bag, it now looked suspiciously light in volume and perhaps not nearly enough to aide my acclimatisation to the pounding African sun, we would need to refill soon. I clipped my belt into its harness and prepared myself for the journey to Jinja. Along the shores of Lake Victoria and through the traffic laden capital of Kampala we talked at length discussing everything from the best place to buy coffee, the business practices of certain foreign direct investors and the merits of Ugandan polygamy, the last one I assumed was all in jest.
Flickering past the dusty windows flew carts laden with all manner of wonderful produce, green flecked, sunshine yellow pineapples of inordinate size, hoards of moulded plastic chairs, commodities of unrecognisable provenance , lorries full of fuel, stopping at irregular points to fill the bottles of budding entrepreneurs, truckloads of white speckled eggs no doubt destined for the greased comfort of a Rolex chapati-the national street dish of Uganda -and small vans crammed full of the extraordinarily delicious tiny bananas that are so lacking from our homogenised market shelves. Huge fronds of matooke were strapped to bicycles clearly designed with overloading in mind, how someone peddles a thin piece of steel tubing encased within a ton of green matooke I have no idea; to those cyclists my hat is permanently doffed.
What one hour driving through Uganda tells you is that this is a country brimming with life and full of opportunity. Every nook is home to shop or tradesmen, space is ingeniously used, after only a brief time it did not seem unusual to see small retail units housing not one but sometimes three, or even four, separate businesses. People are furiously searching for ways to carve a life out for themselves and to utilise the reservoir of potential that floods this fertile land.
As we approached a figurative fork in the road Emma’s phone gave a guttural grumble to indicate that persons unknown were attempting to bridge the communication gap. Emma, silencing the grumble, collected the phone, delivered his greetings then passed the box to me. It was Andrew, the line was hissing and jarred with spits and crackles, we tried, albeit briefly, to sketch out an acceptable portrait of my afternoon. Unfortunately, the call would terminate without warning, another would be established and so on and so forth; a pattern that continued for ten minutes or so. Having shared a few broken words both with Andrew, and with Alan (the Trust’s erudite liaison officer and project area manager for Jinja), it was agreed that I was to forgo the restorative effects of a shower and change of clothes and instead was to head immediately into the field. Now, I must add a caveat, the issues faced by rural Africans are many and varied, a good mobile phone signal however, is not generally considered to be one of them. As far back as 2008 the World Bank indicators for cellular coverage hit 100% in Uganda. It’s quite common for mobile phones to house two sim cards, each one hosting a different carrier, and for the owner of that phone to be carrying a second, equally loaded phone connected to two further networks; were I to be stood atop a craggy fell in the wilds of Cumbria I would have less opportunity to communicate my location to the outside world than if I were buried in the heart of a Ugandan forest, miles from the nearest urban centre. The only reason our conversations were tricky, I would imagine, is that we were crossing networks; to have been able to communicate at all is nothing short of miraculous. Being less mechanically minded I fumbled about in the recesses of my mind for answer as to why the coverage was SO good in Uganda and SO very poor in the UK, it took Alan to point out to me that telecom companies across Uganda, and perhaps the majority of the African continent, can generally put up a signal mast wherever they please; the “not in my back yard” groups are seemingly yet to emerge from the Ugandan shadows.