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It was finding this photo again recently that brought it all back; it shows some of our ex-students working on a roof. The building will be a new classroom for teaching Motor Vehicle Maintenance, the students were all graduates and skilled enough to be employed by their old college. They have kept their college overalls and wear them with pride as they bounce sure footed about the growing roof, notice their flip-flops on the ground by the dancing youth. The colours are strong, new and bright, the shadows sharp and deep; three degrees north of the equator you would expect nothing less.
Is this where I write a roundup of the year just gone? Maybe a self-satisfied description of the unbelievable successes of our over-entitled offspring? Their nationally important roles as cupcake sales persons, hand car wash operatives and niche website facilitators? Perhaps I should dwell at length on the overwhelming successes of our semi feral grandchildren and how little Ptolemy’s performance as a carrot at the Nativity ‘literally’ stole the show?
Or maybe not, because none of that would be true. In reality Storm Frank is still thumping into the side of our rented barn conversion in a farmyard on the edge of Dartmoor.
Even the sheep with fortnight old lambs have been brought in to their barns, so the weather must be awful. In our own warmer and sheep free barn, (unlike the imaginary Ptolemy we have not recreated the nativity ourselves) we can at least reflect on where we were this time last year.
As far away as possible, in Kidepo National Park, north-east Uganda looking forward to vegetables and rice for lunch and again for supper.
We have, I suppose, made the change from one continent to another, from one world to another although we miss our colleagues, the warmth, the light and the sense of purpose that comes with volunteering.
Down here in Devon, the sun wearily struggles above the horizon, occasionally sighing for a while above the hedgerows before slowly plodding downwards again. All of the tones are muted, edges are soft and one form bleeds into another. All is indistinct and unclear, a range of grey washed out earthy greens that feel old and worn.
A quick trip to St Ives further down into the South West for New Year’s Eve, the town a riot of fancy dress at night.
Then Zennor Head for the New Year’s day walk, storm bound; wet and windy but the wind blew in enough vigour to start the new year we hope.
“There will be no storm”
Coming back to the house for lunch I met a meter reader from Umeme, the national electricity company, at the gate. Water and electricity are billed monthly; that means a lot of visits.
I was en route to a college twenty kilometres south and the clouds were threatening. But the man from Umeme was so reassuring that I tried another question:
“And the power?”
The power had been off for the last thirty six hours. On this he was absolutely definite, sincerity quivered from his yellow sunglasses to blue flip flops.
“Oh no Sir! The power will be back on by the end of the day, you can be sure of that”
On my return from the college the rain was so hard that it poured under my motorbike helmet, ran down beneath the waterproofs and exited through the lace holes of my shoes. The rain lasted to the early hours. Without power (obviously), it was so dark that even had I put a hand in front of my face I wouldn’t have known.
Complete and total darkness is something we have got used to by now, along with great formality in any public behaviour. Meaningless sincerity is common to utility companies across the world I’m sure. As I lay in bed listening to the thunder and rain on the roof, Mary was in Kitgum giving workshops, I thought about that formality. At the college I had been asked to sit in on a student debate: “Strike by the student is not the best way of solving the problem”. About forty to fifty students. Two opposing teams, Time Keeper, Chairman, Jury, all participants addressed as Honourable Member (although Acholi accented English often renders an ‘n’ as ‘r’).
Each speaker was articulate and clearly spoken, difficult as it was all in English and remember these are ‘vulnerable youth’ with little schooling or literacy, and extremely sincere. They were also extremely witty; points of order came fast and were splendidly disruptive: was it in order for opponents to cross their legs whilst listening, surely this was disrespectful to the Debating Room? Huge hoots of laughter and applause at that one. It reminded me of a school exchange trip to Southern India some years ago, watching Keralan students at ease with formality and public speaking and our English students tongue tied, mumbling and incoherent.
My Ugandan colleague later explained that formal approaches to public behaviour, a shared set of learned rules, are vital for conflict resolution and self confidence. It would also explain why the meetings we go to are such formulaic affairs, with rigid agendas, roles and rules.
We should not forget he said, that strikes can be extremely violent, many injuries, much destruction sometimes even deaths; formal and objective examination of such issues was important. Interestingly, the debate audience does not vote, the winner is decided by the jury, perhaps that keeps the sense of dispassionate enquiry.
After the debate I was, as usually happens on such occasions, suddenly called upon to give the closing speech. I like to think I channelled my inner English public speaker, a combination of Bertie Wooster floundering about trying to give prizes at a girls school and Hugh Grant babbling mindlessly.
We have been off on our travels again. This time, via meetings with colleagues in Lira and Soroti, to Sipi Falls at the foot of Mount Elgon, South East of Uganda. Near the city of Mbale that looked, architecturally anyway, worth visiting properly.
We stayed in one of a collection of wooden cabins crawling up a hill opposite the largest of Sipi’s three waterfalls. If another much travelled volunteer describes the accommodation as basic, I think you get the idea. The view made up for it.
“Is anyone else staying here at the moment?
“Ah yes, many, there are many of them”
“The American students”
Not quite what you want to hear as you check into a mountain top retreat. That you will be sharing it with 27 students, oh and they are good Christians too. Visions of Kumbaya at dawn after a night of noisy antics in the dorm. In fact they did their dawn singing further up the mountain and, unlike their British counterparts I suspect, there was no drunken rowdiness at all; early beds all round.
This is walking country, all walks are guided, some of the payment going to the community. It is also the big coffee growing area of Uganda: beans drying by the side of the road; beans drying on paths; beans in front of houses; beans everywhere. People sitting in the drying beans or walking across them to pick out bad beans, or maybe ready beans. It was the sitting and walking about on them in flip flops or muddy bare feet that caught my attention, all organic of course.
Our guide took us along tiny steep muddy paths up through banana plantations, interspersed with coffee plants that grow surprisingly high, also climbing runner type beans on tall sticks, higher up the mountain rows and rows of onions and maize. Large scale organised agriculture compared to the haphazard subsistence farming of the north.
There was some evidence of terracing but not much, which gave us one of the talking points of the weekend. In for example Italy, India, South America, China wherever there has been long term farming in mountainous areas, the land is organised into terraces; not here. It would have made travel up and down the slippy hillsides easier. Is organised agriculture a relatively recent arrival? Or are Sipi farmers unaware of the practice? Surely not, it is a logical outcome of moving earth about and stops soil erosion. Maybe people enjoy sliding down mud chutes? It would give us something to talk about as the rain poured down that night and we went to bed very early in our cold little cabin with the creaking bed far too big for the sheets.
Our guide Simon, a competent young man and not too pushy although we bought the world’s most expensive local coffee from him later, took us to the top waterfall first.
The spray filling the eucalyptus trees with photogenic mist, wild bananas and bright wild flowers along the path.
Down to the second fall, hidden from our view across the valley where the river suddenly disappears
at the corner of this natural infinity pool. Frighteningly close to the cliff edge women wash clothes, their babies crawling around them.
Further upriver we had seen a narrow log bridge crossed by a toddler still learning to walk; alarming.
Coming down to the last and biggest fall (one hundred metres apparently) the rain really started.
We sheltered at the Sipi Falls Lodge, a very upmarket place indeed, perfectly slashed lawns, beautifully dressed Japanese tourists waiting for lunch, lunch prices started at 40,000 shillings (more than we were paying for a nights accommodation).
We dragged ourselves away. Us in waterproofs and fancy boots, Simon in T shirt and canvas shoes.
A good walk and there are longer ones we hope to take in the future. The American students had walked one and returned limping and muddy from top to toe, keep them tired was my technique for school trips too.
It is possible to stay in campsites in the national park higher up the mountain. We had brought our tent but the rain was too heavy, maybe next time. A beautiful place, clearly used to tourism as the efficient way local youth ‘helping’ us with a problem with our car relieved us of money proved, but a place to return to nonetheless.
The rainy season is now upon us.
We have had a few violent storms where you see the clouds massing and the wind gets up and then the storm breaks with much thunder and lightning or heavier persistent rain.
When a violent storm is on its way everyone starts running for home or getting to their destination and all the motorbikes are busy delivering their passengers before the downpour. I was one of those rushing on Thursday night – dashing to the shops to get some provisions and then heading back and getting indoors just before the storm broke.
Today Saturday morning it’s just a persistent steady downpour since last night that isn’t showing much sign of letting up and its cold at 18 degrees C. We are all wearing fleeces and jackets!!!
Last night we did a barbecue to say goodbye to one of our colleagues who is returning to the Philippines – it was so unusual because of the rain we were there with our umbrellas cooking the food whilst people sheltered from the rain on the porches.
It’s now 2 weeks to the day since we moved into our new house about 3 km out of the centre of Gulu to a semirural area called Kirombe. We moved to escape the nightly assortment of bad ragga and other music from the local bar Samiz and to enjoy the peace and quiet of the African night ………..but I have come to the conclusion that nowhere in Africa is quiet. It’s a big place so people make a lot of noise.
We have the mosque which during Ramadan did a selection of muezzin duets of an evening and we can also hear the singing and services from the local Pentecostalist church over the weekends – the singing is very fervent and heartfelt and our night watchman had to rush off early last Sunday to join in .
After religion there is the wildlife – the crickets are especially loud – there is a particular type that sounds like the buzzing of a major overhead power line or transformer station and after a good spell of rain the frogs start croaking. There’s a flock of blackbirds with orange beaks that tour around the neighbourhood descending on our grass with great shrieks and pick up seeds and chop off tasty flower buds. My dark red dahlia that I have been nursing through was an unfortunate casualty.
However none of these noises are as bad as Samiz and we have the bonus of a large compound with lots of room to grow things and for me to keep bees and a pleasant tree filled outlook beyond the medieval bling type gate and the razor wire.
It’s just a rainy night in Gulu. Eating pasta and tomato sauce might not be a new experience, but eating it on a veranda as lightning crashes around you, rain lashes down and thunder rattles across the town certainly is. Especially as the sauce contained dried Aubergine, we had to buy it from the student of a college we were visiting. As part of their training in ‘Agric’, students had been given seeds to grow and then encouraged to sell the results in the market. It’s OK, tastes as you might expect dried Aubergine to taste.
The weather is changing, the rainy season is coming. Towards the end each day the clouds start to mass. There have been spots of rain a few times, and a couple of tremendous storms. One hit when we were out at Opit, the small market town about 25 kilometres away we visited with the college principal. First a huge wind blew up the dust so that we couldn’t see anything, a pause whilst we drew our breath, the sky went black and the ferocity of the following rain was frightening.
Another big storm last night, rain poured into the compound. Standing in the doorway a perfectly perpendicular single bolt of lightning appeared to bisect the opening; the subsequent thunder was almost instantaneous; we jumped and screamed.
More heavy rain and thunder this evening, the rain brings the frogs out, their croaks get louder each night. It’s just a rainy night in Gulu, sometimes I feel like it must be raining all over the world.
I can’t think of many working days that have ended with a pillion ride on a motorbike hurtling along mud roads through a dusty town, followed by a walk through a street market (ie women selling produce on plastic bags laid on the street itself) to buy passion fruit, ginger, tomatoes, avocados and strange bitter hairy leaves for supper, ending with eating a very ripe pawpaw from the tree that holds up our washing line.
It rained very, very heavily two nights ago, the first rain since December apparently. The rain has quietened down the dust and brought flowers to the two trees that mark the end of our road.
I have never seen such a ferocious storm; there was more water than sky, thumping into the ground with a frightening intensity. It reminded me of the Nile forcing its way through the narrow passage at Karuma Falls that we crossed on the way up here, only a week ago although it feels a lot longer.