Coming up to our two year mark as VSO volunteers in Uganda (Jan 17th). An anniversary that brings back memories of the advice given before we left: “expect the unexpected” featured heavily I remember.
But, as I found myself writing to an old friend recently, the unexpected was not quite what I was expecting. We have been travelling over the Christmas and New Year break: tales of the unexpected were many.
Driving down to Lake Albert from Murchison, going from the usual bumpy, rutted, dusty and diesel-fumed murrum tracks full of people, cars, trucks, coaches, goats chickens and cows to suddenly find a beautifully finished tarmac highway with lane markings, cats eyes and everything, completely empty.
It was, we realised later, leading to the new oil terminal at Kaiso so maybe we should have predicted it after all.
An empty campsite, attached to a new safari lodge on a new wildlife reserve – a planning gain from the oil process – just us watching the sun set over the lake, the bats flying, frogs shouting and squeaking: blissful.
The night before had been New Years Eve, camping on the edge of Murchison Falls National Park had been ‘lively’.
In Uganda though, they celebrate two years – the old and the new – so the New Years Day party is the biggest. The new Kaiso Community Centre (another oil gain) is some two miles away from the campsite and the party got going at about ten ‘o’ clock, it was far louder than anything Gulu has to offer. All that oil money seemed to have gone into a Glastonbury sized PA.
To be above a lake in the middle of a moonlit wilderness, with baboons, monitor lizards and other nocturnal visitors, yet pinned to your camping mats till seven the next morning by thousands of decibels of Congolese dance music; unexpected.
The next day back on the murrum roads, the car broke down (always expected) in a small trading centre. Watching mechanics assisted by all the local drunks (again always expected) trying to diagnose the problems (many: torn timing belt; broken distributor cap and rotor arm; broken steering rod connector; broken exhaust mounting) all the time accompanied by the sound system across the street which, along with the usual rap and ragga, kept playing Abba. Cold Scandinavian harmonies about heartbreak in forty degree heat and eighty percent dust from the passing hazardous waste trucks driving up from the oil terminal.
That evening having limped the car through a photogenic red sunset bathed in dust like a Monet painting of a London smog, eating supper in a posh hotel watching an extremely scary life-sized, animatronic saxophone Santa playing cool jazz in a room lit only by epilepsy inducing, strobing neon lights.
It’s where various cultures bump up against each other that you find the unexpected ‘unexpected’ and where you begin to see the unequal influence of the West. Think of our campsite, apparently owned by a German businessman, although you could tell he was away because all the staff where busy watching a Manchester United game. Lake Albert itself, named in a foreign language after the husband of an unknown European queen, in a reserve created by an Irish based oil consortium reached via a road built by a Chinese construction company. In the west of a country whose divisive and ethnically inappropriate boundaries were drawn up by the British in the early Twentieth Century.
The Final Tale
All these ideas came together in the crème caramel we were served, proudly, in a lodge at Sipi Falls.
The lodge was on a very steep hill above a huge waterfall, all the ingredients had to be carried from the road a hundred and fifty metres or more down to the kitchen by the water. Cooked there on a charcoal stove and then carried halfway back up the hill to the dining room.
And the eggs of course, like all eggs in Uganda it would seem, had come all the way from Kampala. There are no local egg industries, although chickens are ubiquitous their meat is worth far more than their eggs.
The ‘creme caramel’ was hard to describe, essentially an unseasoned, beaten, hard-boiled, tepid coddled egg with some sugar on top. It looked like the Hyena ‘spoor’ we would be shown in Kidepo National Park a few days later.
Hyena droppings are white because they are apparently one of the few animals that can digest raw bones, other animals can then extract their own calcium by eating the hyena droppings. Equally appealing, our egg dish had the resistant texture of an old flip-flop, the taste of battered aluminum and the smell of … well, defeated hope really. An unexpected blending of a western recipe with African technology and a Ugandan setting.