Children on the DRC border March 13 2013
Six feet in a drumroll
syncopate with the downpour,
rasping on broad-leaf snares.
In an instant, we meet
under haphazard semaphore,
tumbling shrieks cut short.
Each of us receiving a face;
a frozen, flash photograph;
glossy and sleek, panting clouds.
Charging steep, you lead the game.
Mouth set in mirth,
faster eyes widened, alarmed.
The jerk of a knee,
the blade of a foot
slid sharp into slick, scarlet mud.
Darting, they dive like sunbirds,
rippling over the edge, free-
falling through elephant grass.
Crashing to a crouch,
enveloped in bush,
the rain’s chattering fuzz.
Bold with invisibility,
a chorus of greeting.
The intruders are tested.
“How are YOU?”
“We are fine.”
“We are FINE.”
Screeches of relief, of
novelty, of connection
are echoed from below
The Lake Turkana crossing had provided a spark of adventure to which none of us could compare. With our Swiss friends, we had become a close convoy, moving through a wild, lawless and occasionally hostile landscape; making and breaking camp; guiding our vehicles over a thousand empty miles of rock, sand and bush.
Blinking and bewildered we hit the smooth tarmac of South/central Kenya, one of the most developed belts on the continent. Amazed, we watched our average speed jump from 14mph to 55mph. There were people, shops, lorries, noise and lights all around. Was this really the same country where remote police outposts were perpetually battling tribal bandits to bring law?
Once on proper roads, we sped to the Ugandan border, leapfrogging the freight. The rain clouds gathered. We were late for our placement at Iganga hospital where we were to spend the next months. We were also late to meet Alkisti (Alki), Dan’s girlfriend who had flown out from Australia to meet us.
At the border, we were subject to many questions whilst trying to stamp out of Kenya. The way we had arrived from Ethiopia, there were no border posts for hundreds of miles. We had never been stamped in. Our first contact with Kenyan immigration was trying to leave. There was a good chance we would have to iron out this bureaucratic glitch in Nairobi. Fortunately, an understanding senior stamped us through just as the clouds broke.
Uganda was two weeks into its rainy season, defined by slow-building pressure and humidity, preceding earth-shattering thunderstorms. At night you could sometimes drive by the flashes of lightening alone. The heavy greens and flooded fields were a world away from the barren scrubland and dry bush we had recently been living in. Barefooted men and women worked the fields under rounded hills where the last shreds of jungle still clung.
The postcolonial history of Uganda is well know for its brutality and harrowing atrocities. Civil war, Idi Amin and child soldiers all spring to mind. Joseph Koni, the paranoid leader of the Lords Resistance Army, famous for child abduction, mutilation and inflicting bizarre punishments for breaking the Ten Commandments, is still at large in the Congo and fresh in the memory of the northern states. Musavene, the president, is hardly a democratic leader and also has a warlike past. All this said, Uganda was probably the easiest and most pleasant country we had visited so far. The people were witty, cheerful and polite with fantastic, slightly old-world English. Everything, from farms to roads, gave the impression that things were working. The rain, left hand driving and roundabouts gave the place a homely feel.
The entrepreneurial spirit was taking root in this nation. Advertising billboards, a concept we had almost forgotten in Sudan, Ethiopia and Somaliland. Competed like rainforest trees for all available space. Mass advertising (as much as we hate it in the UK) is a reliable sign of an affluent middle class, meaning a smaller Rich-Poor divide and a more stable country. The Ugandan Passion and hyperbole came out in the many of these signs, plastered on the numerous vehicles and small businesses.. They made British advertising seem drab and understated. A few favourites included:
‘Winning beer for winning men’
Doctor Millionaire’s Hotel,
Hero’s Stopover (and booze den)
Maganatu tea ‘I take things personally’
‘Choose ‘A’ for abstinence’
Sandolin paint ‘Trust no one else!’
Mzuzu coffee ‘Through research, we discovered our coffee gives more health benefits than pleasure.’
‘What a Pilsner drinker wants, a pilsner drinker gets’
Metro Signs ‘A business without a sign is a sign of no business’
‘This bus is drenched in the blood of Jesus’
and the winner… ‘The King of Love, Vampire Clan Unisex Hair Salon and Barbers (the clan is for both whites and blacks, one blood)’.
For the first time on the continent, we even found real-life westerners in large numbers. Uganda, as well as being a growing holiday destination, is Africa’s biggest NGO worker honey-pot, diffusing them out to the farthest villages. Everyone in Africa has their opinions on the effectiveness of NGOs, from the positive to the disillusioned. Staying out of this argument, it’s worth contributing the point that the NGO workers, drinking in local cafes, bars and eating in small restaurants create a huge amount of business. They also integrate far better than fly-by tourists. It was certainly nice for us to have a captive audience for our stories.
Halfway along the main road from Kenya to Kampala, lay the bustling truck stop-town of Iganga. We arrived at dusk to a riot of lumbering freight, packed minivans, noisy bars and a thousand smoking food stalls. We let Dan go up to the hotel bar first to meet Alki before we followed.
Alki had last seen Dan in Istanbul three months ago. Since then Dan had undergone a change. His stylish coiffured look had been overgrown by a thicket of beard and hair. Only a tiny portion of his face remained. He perpetually wore a headband made of two socks with Cargo shorts and a vest top. The real changes, however, had happened underneath the tangle of hair. As he had writhed in and out of consciousness in the Ethiopian bush, wrestling with a fever, something had called him. Adrift on the dark ocean of delirium, he had held on to this alluring force, a distant drumming in time with his pulse, an atavistic summons from the heart of the jungle. When his illness was driven out, his wide-eyed, distant stare remained. Some mornings, we would find him awake before us, staring South over the horizon, as if drawn to something.
“I’m not coming to work with you in the hospital.” He announced at the reunion supper.
“I’m going into the Congo.” He paused, seemingly entranced.
“and I’m taking Alki with me.
That night, the background strobe of far-away lightning heralded an almighty deluge that washed away the last memories of the dust and the desert. In the morning, Dan and Alki were gone.
On that same crisp, wet morning Rich and I met David. David was a head-teacher turned governor of the local school and a tireless community leader. After the Hospital had accepted our CVs, he offered to look after us and to put us up. It didn’t take us long to realise how lucky we were to have him as a host. David lived with his family in a quiet corner of the town, next to the hospital. We creaked our car into his compound and piled our dusty luggage into the guest annex. We met the household who were equally welcoming: Prossie, his wife; Paula, Caroline and Susan, who would continuously help us out, laugh at our poor clothes washing technique and prepare us lavish meals; and the three present children, who were to become enthusiastic helpers with the work on the car.
It is difficult to describe how worn by the road we had become but Tess (the car) is more quantifiable. The tyres were cracked and bald and the suspension sagging. The transfer box, front and rear differential had joined in a trio to drip on the floor. It was going to need some serious work. David kindly said that we were welcome to use the compound as our garage.
Our plan was to work on the car and find new parts, in our free-time out of hospital. We were also hopeful to see the country on our weekends and catch up with all the reading and writing projects we had neglected. Surely there would be plenty of time in the following month…