Off to Lira – Know your Matatu

I slept in the “boys’ quarters” in the room next to Sabia as we wanted to get a really early start. We both woke at 3 a.m. and left shortly before 5 a.m. The moon was barely showing as I stumbled down the path from the guesthouse, firmly gripping Sabia’s hand to avoid falling. We had been told that a matatu came by at 5 a.m. We stood on the road, watching fireflies dancing in the bushes. Shadowy figures emerged from the shadows walking up the road towards Bududa, either coming from an all-night church service or bound for an early one. There was no sign of the school watchman and this was the second time he had been missing. As we shivered in the morning chill, we kept our spirits up: “I hope it’s a Muslim matatu,” (i.e. one with “Allah is Great” written on the front) I cracked. Matatu drivers are known for often driving at top speed over the rutted roads, causing their passengers to sway back and forth and jerk up and down. They announce their coming with semi-continuous hoots, sending children jumping up the banks and chickens scurrying cackling into the ditches. Some passengers purposely opt for matatus with “Allah Akbar” painted on the front on the assumption that their drivers will not have been drinking even if this means letting several “God Saves” matatus pass them by.

When asked on which side people drive in Uganda, the only answer I can come up with is “It depends on where the potholes are.” Vehicles have brushed past me within inches of knocking me flying even when I have been walking facing the oncoming traffic. Accidents here can be horrendous. They are frequently hit and runs as a driver who injures or kills a villager risks being lynched by a vengeful mob. Justice does not extend to the rural areas. Apparently such lynchings are even more common in Kenya but they are certainly not unknown here. One year the African Great Lakes Initiative workcampers came upon the corpse of a policeman being loaded into a pickup. An outsider, he had ventured into the village alone to investigate some suspected crime and had been set on by a mob. Mary Edgar has witnessed the body of a child lying untended in the road, “like a dog,” as she said. It seems the purpose was to provide proof when the police eventually came. “They really need a crash course in driving,” I exclaimed. Sabia pointed out the unintentional pun.

Stunning Mountain Scenery on the way to Mbale

Having decided that the 5 a.m. matatu, whether Muslim or Christian, was not going to materialize, we set off on foot for the “circle”. This is a roundabout where bodabodas, pickipickis and matatus congregate, where the road running around Bududa and a string of villages in the foothills of Mount Elgon meets the turnoff to Mbale. The puddles glistened in the semi-moonlight, but the projecting rocks and potholes were harder to spot and I stumbled along wondering how Bududans can negotiate the mountain paths in the pitch dark without as much as a flashlight. Then the sun started to appear behind the silhouettes of the grandiose mountains. The contrast between the shabby run-down one-story shacks and the lush greenery could not have been greater. The glorious scenery and majestic peaks make one overlook the ugliness of the stained cement and rusty roofed shops strung along the road. Similarly, the fun-loving nature of so many of the Buguisu people make one forget, if only momentarily, the dire circumstances in which so many live.

Transport to Lira

Sabia and I jammed into the back seat of a matatu, our knees to our chests because of the spare tire underfoot. This is the jerkiest part of these minivans but one is less disturbed here by the need to “alight” to let other passengers out – the seats reach right across the width of the vehicle but the left-hand seats fold up to allow people to get out. The view was excellent and I had a window seat with an open window. The craggy mass of Wanali stood out against the morning sky. Along this ridge runs the back road to Mbale, which was used by villagers desperate to peddle their produce for supplies in town during the time of shortages under Idi Amin’s regime. Some of the older ones recount, not without bitterness, being forced to carry Baganda – members of the main central Ugandan tribe – or mzungus piggyback over the mountains in olden times. I have not verified the truth of these allegations.

At the bus park we stocked up on groundnuts, bananas and rolex (chapatis cooked on a charcoal stove on the sidewalk and rolled around an omelette) and bought the Sunday Monitor, the opposition newspaper. We were told that the Lira bus was “about” (i.e. coming). Some 15 minutes later the bus did indeed “reach” (i.e. arrive). Sabia had warned me to be aggressive climbing up into the bus and it was indeed a regular scrum with everyone for themselves. People clambered down the steep steps against the surge of heavily laden passengers pushing and elbowing their way in and it seemed that the bigger and fatter they were, the more they shoved and pushed. My backpack was a considerable hindrance and, in the end, a bystander ordered the way to be cleared and I gratefully climbed in. We managed to get a window seat and sit together.

Lira is some 160 kilometres north of Mbale and it takes about 5 hours to get there. The first part of the way, to Soroti, is murram and badly potholed. The Soroti-Lira section has been tarmacked. Stops are frequent: for police checks, for the numerous enormous speed bumps or “humps” and to pick up passengers. Soroti brought back pleasant memories of a visit during my teenage years and grim memories of being “felled” by sickness halfway to Lira a few years ago. Luckily after a bout of gastrointestinal pain, I found solace in a comfortable hotel room and recovered sufficiently within a few hours to spend the evening with a beer and Al Jazera! We were now passing through Teso and the scenery was flatter with occasional enormous rocky outcrops. A great deal of land seemed to be fallow and the cultivated areas – cotton, paddy rice and the usual maize and cassava – were larger.

Children of Hope Lira – Esther Atoo

The Children of Hope in Lira was an offshoot of the original African Great Lakes Initiative project in Bududa. The main fundraiser is now Lorna Pitcher in Toronto. The project pays the school fees for a number of local orphans and trains some in tailoring. Last year I attended the graduation of 57 tailoring students, who proudly paraded round town in gowns and mortar boards behind a police brass band and were then presented with their certificates and a new sewing machine each. Esther is well organized and manages the program well. Crafts are taught and there is a small library in the project office. Thanks to donations by the father of a former student of Lorna’s, a vocational school with 250 students has been started in Barlonya, the site of a major massacre by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Esther’s husband, Solomon, runs the school. Unfortunately, he had just been involved in a motor vehicle accident and so was unable to drive us to see the school.

Esther has a large garden, or perhaps it could even be called a farm, and raises crops etc. as a fund-raiser. She showed me her new variety of banana. It produces a mass of side shoots, which she intends to have planted in the school grounds. She also keeps bees and two sows, one of which has piglets. The latter raised about $2000 dollars for the project last year. Her pawpaw trees were bearing heavily. At the school itself, plots of orange trees have been replanted. The original trees were dying of drought when I visited in February. The fish pond has so far not been so much of a success.

Esther and Solomon are adding two new guest rooms to their compound. Sabia and I slept in the existing two rooms. There is a flush toilet and we had the luxury of a shower although the water was cold. A generator produces electricity in the house but not the guest rooms. They are hoping for volunteers to help with the school. One volunteer, a young Canadian, has stayed with them so far. Unfortunately, he had unrealistic expectations of the school and was disappointed and felt it was too primitive. As a result, he returned to Canada and produced an unfavourable report. This shows the importance of orientation in the country of origin before volunteers go overseas.

Monday, November 14, 2011

I spent the early morning sitting in the compound glancing through the secure metal door at the pigs and beyond them the garden, and reading Blood River, which describes a Daily Telegraph journalist’s journey down the Congo River in 2004 in the midst of great adversity. The night was somewhat disrupted by mosquitoes as the mosquito net was missing from my room, but I nevertheless felt quite refreshed and caught up on my sleep. Esther and her housegirl struggled with the charcoal stove for quite some time – apparently, the charcoal was of poor quality – and finally, produced some absolutely delicious milk tea made with whole untreated milk.

Visit to the Children of Hope Office

We wound our way on foot into Lira along what resembled rough field tracks but actually circumvented a residential area. Everything was much greener than last February and the crops were growing apace, but they were very weedy. We strolled down Kampala Road into Lira town, alongside a metre-deep uncovered ditch, dodging cyclists and motorcyclists. Lira was bustling with the usual chaotic town life: brightly dressed pedestrians, street traders with their neat pyramids of tomatoes and other vegetables, and men sitting around idling away the day playing cards and drinking.

In the office we were greeted by the administrator. The library looked well organized. Crafts made now include straw sunhats and stuffed animals and I was given a large bagful to take back to Toronto. The administrator had been visiting the caregivers of some of the orphans in an attempt to encourage them to follow more hygienic practices – dig latrines and rubbish pits sufficiently far from the house, etc. Some of the mud latrine walls have collapsed due to the heavy rain. Thousands of people have been displaced because their homes have been damaged or destroyed by floods in various areas of Uganda including north of Bududa. The newspaper predicts continued heavy rain until the end of this month.

We took a lunch break at an internet café opposite a vacant lot in which masses of fruit bats congregate in tall trees. Here we had a choice of Western or local food – Esther chose the latter, the usual chicken and rice. This is a mzungu hangout and it was pleasantly cool as we were on the third or fourth floor and a refreshing breeze blew through the windows. After a short nap on the comfy sofas and a battle to get into the email, Sabia and I walked back to Esther’s. Sabia carried a huge bag of stuffed toys for Toronto on her head and I lugged along the standard black plastic bags full of groceries. Needless to say, we attracted constant attention from bodaboda riders as we progressed and had to repeatedly turn down their offers of a ride. We also attracted much hilarity and many comments from bystanders.

Northern Uganda is more disadvantaged than the south and the north/south divide can clearly be observed from the bodabodas. The further north you travel, the fewer pickipickis (motorcycle taxis) there are and the more bodabodas (bicycle taxis). In Bududa nowadays it is hard to find bodabodas but they abound in Soroti and Lira. I’m not sure if the pickipickis, which obviously require more investment, are putting the bodabodas out of work or if bodaboda riders are starting to drive pickipickis.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Back to Bududa

After a breakfast of starchy pumpkin, white bread and Blue Band (margarine), milk tea and the sweetest pineapple I have ever tasted, we said goodbye to the three children, C—-, who attends a Catholic private school and loves mathematics; J—, named after Lorna’s husband, who is full of mischief and a great climber – he was once found on the roof – and baby L—-, as sunny as they come. Esther and Solomon accompanied us to the bus park where the person in charge seated us on a bench on the sidewalk and told us that the bus was “about”. An hour or so later, after I had managed to read most of the daily newspaper and photograph the bus park, the bus from Gulu did indeed arrive. This time the scrum was worse to purchase tickets than to climb on board.

Back at the guesthouse, Barbara was already planning for her next batches of volunteers. She will have a full house for quite a while and volunteers may even need to share the four guest rooms. Julie was hard at work updating the lists of sponsors and sponsored children and alphabetizing them, a task that badly needed undertaking. After supper computers and phones were brought out and, after a bit of social time, everyone worked away separately. Keeping in touch with “back home” is an important part of guesthouse life.

Here ends the compendium of Sheila’s reports from Bududa.

Before returning to Canada, Sheila went to Kinshasa, D. R. Congo to join the five-member team of Canadians who are taking part in election observations organized by CFSC’s partner there, Project Muinda. Her reports from Kinshasa can be found at http://quakerservice.ca/our-work/peace/project-muinda/. Look for the link to “November 2011 election observer team reports”.

Submitted by: Sheila Havard
International Coordinator
Children of Bududa