Uganda – aug 10
On the bus, drove to centre of town in Kampala, stopped, waited. Our leader bought a muffin. We’re stuck waiting for people who are late. This seems so typical of this trip; so much waiting for things that are late, people who are late. No one gets upset about it. No one gets impatient. We just wait and in the end everything is alright, but late. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if we suddenly changed the schedule and decided to leave tomorrow.
The Swedish woman, Anna, said that she thought our accommodation in Kampala was luxurious. She said it was like a resort. I keep thinking about that. I wonder if she has adjusted her idea of luxury to accommodate Africa. Maybe she has lowered here expectation. I mean it’s clean and it’s comfortable enough; but luxurious?
On the road finally. The road is lined, as we leave the city, with shops selling ugly furniture that can only have been imported from some dive in China. We passed people filling jeri-cans with water at a concrete puddle. At least it looked like a puddle of water, though a large puddle, that had overflowed from somewhere. It didn’t look healthy. There has been drought. The landscapes is beautiful, green, lush. It doesn’t look like drought, but our Ugandan hosts say there is.
For the first few days my internet connection on the BB wasn’t working and the phone only worked intermittently. I’ve been here four days, I think. On day three I get the most unexpected sms from MTN welcoming me to Uganda, handing me over to Yello, their local arm, and giving me total access to everything. I’m loving MTN right now. I have my twitter back. I have my email. I have access to talk to The Lavah. I have been missing him. I mean, it’s three days that I’ve been here so it’s a bit late, but everything we have scheduled here, so far, has been late. Why would MTN be any different?
On the bus for ages, finally it is announced that we are stopping for lunch. What a relief. Where in this desolate place in the middle of nowhere are we going to stop. I see a sign that says ‘hotel’ and I chuckle to myself and think ‘yeah, right’! We are in Kiryandongo, Masindi district. We drive down a dirt road and into The Jesse Hotel. It is an oasis. It has lovely clean looz. I tried the ones at the petrol station, and well, let me just say it’s not like in SA. I decided to hold it.
The district administrative chief came and greeted us. As soon as he heard my name, when I was introduced, he said “Ah, Oliver Tambo, yes, he was a great man,” and he shook my hand warmly. I felt a little misty, I confess. The whole of Africa is proud of my Dad. We passed The Oliver Reginald Tambo Leadership Academy on the road. We don’t even have that in South Africa. Lunch was delicious. In fact, every meal we have had in Rwanda and Uganda has been delicious. So much for me dropping kilos.
We pass the River Nile. It is rapids and falls and is exhilharatingly beautiful. This area was, they say, held in the old days by the LRA. We were warned not to take any photographs. We were emphatically warned. Even though it has been 5 years or so since the LRA gave it up, the area has not been completely cleared and they suspect that there are factions still hiding out waiting to resume combat. It is a suspicion, not a certainty. One of the group, a young Ugandan woman, wants to stop on the way back and confront the soldiers and demand that they let us take pictures. I really don’t want to do that. That could land us in situations that I am so not interested in experiencing. Our leader said that we could stop and do that. I pray he has changed his mind. From here, I want to go straight home.
Besides, what’s the point in arguing with a soldier? Soldiers follow orders. That’s all. What does she want to achieve? Does she think she’s going to singlehandedly save tourists from a military law that obviously has its reasons for being there? Is it possible for a person to be that naïve? No, I think it’s just a moment of hysteria. We all get them. She’s allowed to have hers. I roll my eyes in despair.
This is her country, she can do that, but for most of us here, this is not our country and we are not, and I repeat, not, going to argue with its laws. If they say don’t take picture of the waterfall, then we don’t take pictures of the waterfall. I will injure her if she even begins to try and defy that law in my presence. We ain’t doing military jail. She can fight with me about that. I want to go home. I am not going to sit in some Ugandan jail and answer questions. Besides, what would my ambassador say? I couldn’t embarrass my nation like that. What for? Good Lord in Heaven above.
The villages we pass are full of commerce and very beautiful. One sees groups of men sitting around tables caucusing. One sees groups of women sitting in circles peeling, talking. One sees country life Uganda style. It’s very picturesque.
We finally arrive at Lira, a bustling metropolis and most unexpected place where we are accommodated at The White House. This is a bar with a hotel on top of it. Ordinarily you would have to knock me out and carry my unconscious body over the threshold to get me to stay here, but I am in the moment. I am with the group. I told our leader it was ‘palatial’. He seemed pleased by that. He’s kind of cute when he’s pleased. After all, I’m a tag along guest here and he doesn’t have to give any consideration to my feelings.
Today we are going to the site of one of the most horrific genocides which is a national monument. We are then going to River Blue, which is a home for orphans of the war. They will dance national dances. In fact, I think there will be something of a competition, if I am not wrong. We are going to listen to their testimonies and what else I’m not clear. It will unfold.
Our departure is delayed for two hours, so I am in this horrific hotel, and I am awake and I am experiencing it. I don’t like it. Ah well, at least it’s clean and out of the rain, so I shouldn’t complain.
“Atok” – this is my name. I am privileged to have been given a Ugandan name by our host in Aloi. Atok is the one who brings rain, because it has been raining today and it is the first rain in many months. The rain came with us. Just when I was wishing the rain had held off for a few days and that my shoes weren’t covered in mud I am blessed with this name and I smile inside.
At the memorial sight in the village we listened to the story of how the LRA came to the village, killing people and kidnapping children in 2001. The memory is ever present; people are traumatized. The village spokes person said that many people come to this sight, journalists come, tourists come, NGO’s come. All make promises. Never are these promises fulfilled. Our leader told them all he could promise is to tell their story. What difference does that make to them? It makes none. 10 years have passed. The story has been told and retold. Yes there are many people who don’t know. But I think that those who are interested, or who were interested know what happened in Northern Uganda. The BBC has told the story. CNN has told the story; Al Jazeera and the print press. If their reach makes no difference, what difference is a play going to make? Or do they become a dinner party anecdote? What does telling the story mean? What has it been reduced to?
The journey was interminable with moments of real fun. The bus got stuck in the mud, not once, but twice. The first time we had to overtake a vehicle that was stuck, but before we could do that another vehicle came along and got stuck in the other lane, so we had to wait for that vehicle to be ‘liberated’. The villagers managed to push it out. We managed to pass. But then, we got stuck a little way on. The team was valiant. They pushed that stick-in-the-mud bus out of that mud.
Our second stick-in-the-mud experience more scraping of mud away from the wheels of the bus, and picking up large rocks and placing the under the wheels to create traction etcetera. No, I didn’t do any of that. I’m not like that. But it was an egalitarian liberating of the bus. The other women helped along with the men. I took pictures. Someone needs to document the procedures.
We arrive at a building that looks to me like a stable with steel doors, one of which was looked with a pair of handcuffs. Hmm, one can only guess. They call it a hotel. My heart is somewhere in my boots at this stage. There is no running water. No running Water. Yes, ok, so I’m spoilt. I’m here, though. I’m doing it. I’m not complaining. There is no electricity. The toilet facility is a squat loo whose aroma is torture. In fact this place is torture. No other word can accurately describe it. Other words do come to mind. Cruciation. Torment. Tribulation. You get my drift. Torture.
There’s an uncomfortable sense I have of poor Africans being patronized by wealthy Americans. I have had a discomfort this entire trip. I have kept it to myself, mostly.
Some kids from River Blue, the home we will be visiting tomorrow, have come to sing for us. You cannot imagine the deep seated sense of dread that fills my heart. These are children of war. River Blue exists to rehabilitate them, educate them, skill them. It is such an amazing programme. George is the headmaster of the school. He tells us that girls who don’t continue with their education have no option but to marry. The school needs money, desperately.
That’s what I’m talking about. This group comes here every year; has been coming here for nine years. Every one of these years must be filled with the same stories. They take the stories and use them to inspire their art. They write plays for American audiences who probably give them less attention than they do to Harry Potter. So they take the stories, and what do they give back? They are telling their stories, but so what? These kids are not eating that. Do the proceeds from the performances of these plays come back here? The telling of the stories simply isn’t enough.
Each child stands up and tells their story. They were abducted. They were made to burn houses with people inside. They were made into slaves for the LRA. Each story is a painful testimony of war. Each child’s life was, ultimately, saved by River Blue. River Blue needs money to survive. Surely Brown University can hold fundraisers to support them financially. It’s bullshit that they come here each year and don’t give financial assistance. Even 100 dollars goes very far here. Telling their stories isn’t enough. It serves the playwright. It’s exploitative. I know the intention isn’t to exploit, but that is the result.
To come and listen to the terrible experiences of these children year after year and to say ‘I can’t raise money for them’ turns it into macabre fascination. They need money or River blue will close. The presence of this group gives them an obligation to raise that money. Why don’t they see that?