Driving through the fields of the old tea plantations where local Ugandans work with the Indian-owned Mukwano fields was an experience. As an entry into the beautiful world of this country it was like stepping back in time. My private driver, Rashid, commented on how the name Mukwano is a name for friendship, symbolising the special relationship between India and Uganda formed from the partnership. A well-known black tea produced on these lands, it was also grown surrounded by sugar cane, a crop that grows plentiful on the fertile plains of Eastern Uganda. After two hours of driving through old plantations, we came upon the tall, lean trees of Mabira Forest which houses a rainforest lodge and several miles of untouched bush. We did not stop until we reached the famed Jinja where the source of the Nile River flows and the water runs swiftly, forming high rapids. Almost an hour later, we passed the Iganga road to Kenya, just 100 kilometres from Mbale. Strange to think that Iganga could take you to Nairobi in just a few hours.
Upon arrival in Mbale, the director of our organisation, Barbara, met me just outside a textile shop that sold us fabric bolts for a new order of uniforms. Barbara found a way to manage several of these bolts squashed in with my suitcase and various sacks and backpacks in the trunk and backseat of the car. We took off immediately to the marketplace where we then negotiated our way through various hallways of aromatic spices, delightful fruit, women’s Gomez dresses, men’s trousers, stalls of various vegetables and children’s toys. Barbara was unfazed; she is a women who multi-tasks with the handling of currency, bartering, and winding her way through hotbeds of chaos. Admittedly I was in a different class. Our first steps into the market were followed by hissing and unflattering kiss-y-faced spattering of throaty snarls. They were headed in our direction. I kept my eyes forward but was still a little unnerved. I was to discover later it was likely my jeans that set the crowd off.
Women wear skirts in this town and almost any other place in Eastern Uganda. In Kampala citizens are slightly more modern but the lack of trousers is noticeable. As it was my first day wandering the streets I was in for a slight shock. We paid the shopkeeper for several buttons, threads and accessories before heading back to our car. I noted that if Rashid was not driving us to these places, it would be uncertain if I could find my way to any spot in the city. Mbale is a dusty, hot town but its special vibrancy may come from the spectacular view. Just above the lines of main streets are the mountain of Wenale, which cover the front of Mt. Elgon. Indigo and violet in colour with a background of blue skies it cannot be missed. No matter the heat and humidity, the foreground is dwarfed in comparison.
Regardless, Mbale is a small city. If you can call it a city, it is likely because it is giant in scale when discussed against villages and Maduka, the name of trading posts in each area. Our local trading post near Bududa Learning Centre serves items as bodas (motorcycle taxis), airtime, as well as cold coca-colas and bottled water. Nothing says luxury like ice-cold bottles of water.
After a halumi sandwich and ginger juice blend in the local expatriate cafe, I was feeling a bit spoiled. Barbara obviously knew the nice hot spots in Mbale and this one was a treasure. We picked up fresh fruit at the market after the half hour break and negotiation was not calming.
2,000, he said.
No, 1,000. For five oranges? Not 2,000.
Ok. For you I give special price. 1,500 shillings.
Fine. I’ll take them.
Who knew shopping could be this taxing? Twenty minutes and seven bags of lemons, green beans, cucumber, tomatoes, peppers, and the ever-special pineapple later…we were ready to go.
A quick trip to the petrol station saw me staring at the « No parking » sign on the concrete in front of me. There were two bodas and a small car in front of the sign. I smiled. This is Africa alright, I thought. We jettisoned to the dirt roads taking us to Bududa district, where we arrived in front of a small coffee cooperative called Konekhoyi Co-Op. Our car was soon surrounded by little children no older than ten years old clambering to assist us with baggage. I was used to welcomes but this was an entirely new kind of greeting.
The children had the sweetest smiles and called out to us in excited voices:
« Hello! How are you? »
Then, shyly, « Malembe. How are you? »
The girls wore brightly-coloured dresses and the boys had trousers tied up just below the knee with t-shirts and polos. Red was a favourite colour, which shone on their copper skin. I was mostly caught by the brilliancy of their grins. Then, caught by the way they jumped up and down on our approach. How can one describe the feeling of contagion? It just takes over.
After handing out several thousands of shillings to Rashid, (the currency exchange here is outrageous) I was greeted by my other colleague James who is the international coordinator for programmes and volunteers. Another exuberant person to add to my list of welcomes, James and Barbara soon began exchanging stories of the long drive, errand-running and the week’s schedule. The sun set below the charming guesthouse, a brick building which kept up four rather large rooms, a dining area, kitchen, and front veranda. We drank cups of tea and as the sky became gradually darker, the stars came out in all their glory. One of the best things about living in the bush – the night. It is rare to find a place better than the African bush for star gazing.
So we sat en plain aire, laughing about the day’s unusual – or perhaps unusual in its normalcy – events and errand-running. A dinner of chicken and South African red wine awaited with some macaroons I had brought from my recent European travels. It was a beginning of beginnings.
Hello Lugishu people. Hello Uganda.
Submitted by: KIMBERLY BEEBE
Grants & Development Officer