The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect those of VSO

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Into Uganda - Part 2

Kampala is a traffic nightmare but, in one of those development paradoxes, mainstream economists often argue that this is good thing as it demonstrates the spending power of a growing middle class. It certainly makes Kigali, despite its surge in 4x4s, look like toy town in comparison. There are 33 regional languages in Uganda with English as the official one and the medium of instruction in schools and universities. It was odd being in a country again where you don't have to make any effort to speak a local language although many of the Bantu-related ones in the south bear a striking resemblance to Kinyarwanda. There is also a large number of Rwandan émigrés who have settled there as farmers following the many conflicts across the border.
Prior to the arrival of the British, Uganda was a series of autonomous kingdoms and during the colonial divide and rule period it was convenient to allow each kingdom a degree of authority. After independence this arrangement collapsed and although the kings of Buganda (known as the Kabaka), Bunyoro, Toro etc still exist, they are ceremonial positions. They get to have a nice big house and carry out cultural maintenance duties for their government stipend. In Masindi in the north west near Murchison NP, the beautifully restored Masindi Hotel is the hang out of the Bunyoro king who comes into the Ernest Hemingway bar most nights for a Nile Special.
Goat and chicken brochette sellers
Unfortunately, the night we were there was his evening at home with the missus so I got to join a group of fanatical Manchester United supporters instead watching the team come back from the dead to beat Manchester City in the Charity Shield season opener. The love affair with English football in Africa continues to grow apace. The Ernest Hemingway story is an interesting one as the famous writer, adventurer, womaniser and heavy drinker, not only propped up the Masindi bar in the early '50s, but suffered a horrific plane crash in Murchison sustaining the injuries and lasting pain that some say led to his eventual suicide in 1961.
With Eduardo and Simone
It was rare to meet someone travelling in Uganda who was purely on holiday. Nearly everyone seemed to be there, at least in part, on some form of goodwill or volunteer tourism. Nick, an English/Aussie, was trying to set up a viable fair trade coffee enterprise in East Africa; Maria from Madrid wanted to help orphans in Gulu in Northern Uganda brutalised by Joseph Kone and his egregious Lord's Resistance Army; hilarious Jeff, who ran a bicycle shop in New Orleans, was visiting to help kick start a bike rental business in Jinja; two young Brazilians, Eduardo and Simone, wanted to get involved in refugee issues but hadn't been accepted into the Somali camps in NE Kenya so were looking for someone worthwhile to do in Uganda; an Indian optometrist who had been kicked out by Idi Amin in 1972 and now lived in Canada, had come back to work with a group of expert volunteers on eye and ear related problems in remote eastern Uganda. In two weeks 10,000 people had been treated.
Village bandas
It wasn't all one way. A group of Dutch social entrepreneurs were visiting to learn from Ugandan small-scale traders on how to bring the human dimension back into the Dutch work environment. One of them, Jasper, was the most incredibly precocious 21 year old I have ever met. He was tutored privately from the age of three by his rich parents, started his own business at 12 and currently earns $1000 a day doing training workshops for large corporations in Holland. Wow! Imagine having the confidence to lay it on to a bunch of middle-aged suits at that tender age. And better still the suits seem to want it! I think I was just working out my arse from my elbow at 21. I would love to be the proverbial fly at one of his sessions as, despite my sociological background, a deep fog descends on my brain when someone starts rattling on about the intrinsic, value adding, capacity building merits of constructing social capital. One thing is sure; I bet the Ugandan traders they were learning from didn't use PowerPoint. And yet, Jasper wasn't achieving enough according to his super demanding dad, especially compared to his sister, who at 19 was only two years short of graduating as a doctor. They had become estranged and Jasper was soon going off to the US to study for a year at an Ivy League university financed by his own acumen. Initially, I thought of my early 20s - a lot of which seems, with hindsight, to have been spent sitting around listening to Dark Side of the Moon, Tubular Bells and the like trying to work out the meaning of it all - and felt envious of his rapid maturity. This is what happens when the mortality clock imposes a new appreciation of the preciousness of time. But, hey, gradual learning has its upside and at least I'm still on good terms with my two sons!
The crater lake  pic on the 20,000 shilling note
At one of the many beautiful crater lakes near Fort Portal in the west we came across an interesting volunteer programme where two Canadian women were helping plant native vegetation on the lake hillsides as well as set up a local library in the nearby village. A group of Spanish girls, each one more gorgeous than the other, were lounging around the lakeside reading fat novels. They had come for two weeks to teach (heavily accented) English to small children in an orphanage. We took a trip through the community protected forest with its plentiful Red Colobus and Black and white Colobus Monkeys, and bevies of Great blue Turaco until we reached the impoverished village where the library was located in a small roadside shack. Raggedy, barefoot children appeared out of the mud to stare at the pictures of snow-capped peaks and ancient temples in well-thumbed National Geographic magazines. The library door has to be kept locked otherwise the contents would all disappear and the Canadians, who were leaving the next day after a two month stint, said that a small amount of funding had been found to pay someone to supervise the library for an hour or so daily.
The rave up
Their imminent departure meant that we had arrived on the noisiest night ever experienced in crater lake country as a massive sound system was brought in from Fort Portal at the Canadians' expense and a goat slaughtered to celebrate the occasion. There was nowt else to do but join in and I danced non-stop for a couple of hours protocol dictating that I should hold hands with the African men and not the Spanish girls. That would have been too weird. And, by the way, I can assure you that not all African men have rhythm. I eventually went back to our Banda and crawled in under the mosquito net to join Stella who had retreated much earlier and was gamely attempting, by torchlight and with earplugs, to catch up on six-week-old world events in the Guardian Weekly. We didn't have mallets to knock each other out so went for more modern emergency sleeping pills which successfully blotted out not only the disco but also the torrential rain that fell during the night. Hooray for drugs - legitimate ones of course.
The village library

Monday, August 22, 2011

Into Uganda

We arrived at Jinja, east of the horrifically traffic congested Kampala, some days into the trip. This is still promoted as the source of the Nile where the great river comes out of Lake Victoria heading north and there is a John Hanning Speke statue in recognition of the hairy-faced Englishman's triumph after his many years of searching. Pity he got it wrong because everyone now knows the new, true source of the Nile is in Nyungwe forest in Rwanda, right? I've even got the picture to prove it! After all, water has to flow into Lake Victoria from somewhere. (Just ignore those upstart Burundians who are claiming a yet more distant source with the publicity and dollars it can bring. I suspect this soggy little saga has quite a ways to run yet)
Roofless colonial period house in Jinja which is still lived in
Anyway, the rundown hotel where we were staying had an Internet service which, despite East African computer virus paranoia, I felt compelled to use. I asked the delightful, young receptionist (turns out she was 20) how to start the machine up and a little dinosaur icon waddled across the opening screen. Ha, ha, that's cute I said to make conversation. What followed went something like this:
"What is it?"
"It's a dinosaur."
"Can you find it in the forest?"
"No, they're extinct, they all died out a long time ago."
"Before I was born."
"Before my mother was born."
"Even before you were born."

Okay, so will you now kindly stop knocking the education system in your neck of the woods? (Except, that is, for any US Bible Belt readers - please carry on complaining) And, by the way, I wasn't offended but quite pleased to imagine that I might have been around when pterodactyls still patrolled the skies. It obviously explains my interest in ornithology.
The extraordinary Shoebill at Mabamba Swamp on the shores of Lake Victoria
Lake Victoria is immense and looks for all the world like an inland ocean. It still hasn't stopped it from being overexploited. Overseas demand for fresh water fish has grown phenomenally since the 1990s and a lot of people have taken up fishing especially in response to increased prices. Tilapia and Nile perch stocks, the two favourite species, have plummeted. More fishermen seeking fewer fish has led to conflict with hippos and at least six fishermen have died in the lake since the beginning of the year. Here's how it works. Where the hippos are, fish thrive on their dung so the fishermen take ever more risks in trying to cast their nets where the herbivorous but highly territorial hippos may charge and overturn the fishing boats, scrunching anything in their way.
One of the troublemakers
In an act of self preservation but employment short sightedness, many fishermen would like the Uganda Wildlife Authority to cull the hippos which would, of course, reduce the dung and thus the fish numbers. This situation is not likely to get better any time soon. Like many countries in Africa, Uganda is experiencing a huge population explosion. The current birth rate is 5.9 children per married woman, the third highest in the world after Yemen and Niger. The current population is 34 million and is expected to reach over 130 million by 2050 at the present growth rate. Human -wildlife conflicts are only likely to worsen as land and resource pressures increase.
A big hippo pod on Lake Edward
Later in the trip at Queen Elizabeth National Park I asked the guide how many people had been killed by dangerous critters during his seven years doing the job. The score card reads: lions = 3; buffaloes = 2; elephants = 1; AND hippos a whopping 30 due to their close proximity to people not just on water but at night on land when they often pass very close to fishing villages on their grazing routes. In QENP there are 11 villages with a combined 15,000 population exploiting Lake Edward in a supposedly sustainable way and we were told that many people have to stay indoors during the evening rush hour when hippos pass between some of the closely built houses. Richard, our tour organiser in Fort Portal in the west of the country, had a narrow escape once when hippos capsized a boat he was in and four of his six-person party did not resurface.
The Ugandan press attack the President's desire to give away part of a precious rainforest for sugar cane
Unlike Rwanda, some of the Ugandan newspapers are worth reading. Even the raunchy Red Pepper adds a bit of spice to daily reading life. My favourite was the Daily Monitor which is allowed - surprisingly given the authoritarian nature of the regime - to get stuck into President Museveni's government and its rampant corruption. The big story during much of our stay was the president's renewed desire to give away over 7000 hectares of the magnificent Mabira Forest near Jinja, which we birded, to an Indian sugar baron, Mr Mehta. Everyone thought that the matter had been laid to rest because the last time the proposal came up in 2007 there were riots in Kampala and three people were killed.
The strength of the public's response to the give away
The attacks against Museveni for this potential folly have been coming from all quarters including his own party. The unanimity of opinion against the move is refreshing and speaks of a strong and growing environmental movement in the country. Every article and letter on the subject, while we were there, was anti the proposal and the worry is that the actions of the Mehta group in continuing to pursue the carve up one of Uganda's last remaining tropical expanses could inflame anti-Indian feeling similar to what erupted in the early 1970s under Idi Amin. It is only in recent years that Indians have started returning to the country after the 1972 expulsions but there are growlings, not just about the Mabira move but the domination by Indians of the tea plantations which frequently employ Ugandan children under the legal age of 18 thus discouraging them from completing their schooling.
The exquisite Northern Carmine Bee-eater
Someone jokingly wrote in the Monitor that there must be oil under Mabira because it's not as if there isn't alternative land where sugar could be grown. The escalating sugar price, as a result of shortages, is ostensibly the principal reason driving Museveni to reopen the issue of gifting the precious forest land - that and a healthy donation from the mega-rich Mr Mehta, no doubt, to the depleted government coffers and its big wigs following the vast outlays necessary to secure victory in the recent pork barrel election.
Black and white Colobus Monkey
Speaking of oil it has recently been discovered in big quantities in the Nile Delta flowing into Lake Albert in the north west of the country and already there are fights over entitlements and how the wealth will be divvied up with a controversial proposal by a foreign Think Tank that the revenues be given to each individual Ugandan as a Mobile Money bonus instead of the usual siphoning of the profits by the fat cats. This is easily done in a society where virtually everyone has a mobile phone but I won't hold my breath. Where oil is found, especially in Africa, trouble invariably follows. Just ask those living in the Niger Delta.
Murchison Falls
The oil exploration area is just west of Murchison NP and it will be very interesting to see how this issue plays out. Oil is big bikkies of course and everyone accepts that it will proceed and indeed seems to believe that it will be extracted in an environmentally friendly way! Ugandans are immensely proud of their national parks and wildlife reserves and there is generally little sympathy for small scale 'encroachers' who nibble away at the edges for firewood and cattle grazing. The indigenous pygmy Batwa were even thrown out of their traditional hunting areas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the south west of the country rather than compromise gorilla tourism and its almighty dollar.
Anyone recognise this fellow?
Tour guiding is a growth industry and we came across over 20 trainee bird guides at a swamp outside Fort Portal. (That is a massive number in a tourism sector that is still very small). Half of them were women and I asked one, who was invited to come along on the walk with us, what her future plans were. "I am a lady so would like to be a businesswoman selling ladies' products," she said. "That, and to know all the birds". That is some combo! I have this vision of her on a tour identifying bird calls in between flogging Amway. Yes that's a Black-headed Gonolek, now would you like some hair straightening cream?

More in next episode.