Star Date: February 2010
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
Mata! Toyai? Ejoka.
(Hi! How are you? Good. Karamoja tribe)
"Pride and Dignity. It is in his eyes. Radiance that remains even in the darkness."
(Sy Onyama - speaking on the Karamoja)
Uganda, a lush stunning country provides a taste of the best Africa has to offer. Green hillsides stand in contrast to the arid northern savannahs. The continent's largest lake, Lake Victoria, gives birth to the mighty Nile River, the world's longest. Africa's tallest mountains, the snow capped Rwenzoris or Mountains of the Moon, hide some of the highest concentrations of primates, including half of the world's mountain gorillas. Northern tribes such as the Karamoja fiercely hold on to their traditional dress and culture while the tiny pigmy tribes of the south are losing their culture with the disappearance of the forests they have called home. A pleasant mild year round climate and an abundance of wildlife makes this a country not to be missed. Decades of political unrest have put this "Pearl of Africa" on a back shelf but with recent stability it will undoubtedly catch on again. Ugandan has earned the reputation of 'Africa's Friendliest Country' due to low crime and hassle towards visitors and of course those beaming, easygoing smiles everywhere.
The Karamoja are northern Uganda's warrior nomads. Like the feisty Turkana, Pokot, Masai, or Samburu tribes in neighboring Kenya, the Karamoja are pastoralist people, surviving solely on their livestock to sustain themselves in this harsh climate. They have immeasurable pride in their traditional way of life and are prepared to fight to maintain it. Cows are the center of their existence and poems or stories are written to hail their importance. Meat, hides and dung keep their villages going. When things get slim they sustain their families on 'blood shakes' of milk and fresh blood tapped from the neck arteries of their cows, then squirted into a gourd. One thousand mm of rain is needed to sustain people in this arid area without infrastructure and in recent years only a mere 500mm has fallen. In fact their way of life is on the brink of disaster as a 'good' rain hasn't fallen for many years. Back to the old story, no trees, no rain, no crops, no livestock, no life. As pasture lands dry up and cattle die in increasing numbers, raiding of the livestock of neighboring districts is increasing. In the culture of these proud people, raiding the cattle of other tribes has never been seen as stealing, rather it is an economic and heroic endeavor. Money and wealth depends on the size of a man's herd, even if he expropriates the cows from a village in a neighboring district. Villagers never know where the next attack will come from. Temporary compounds are made of thatched roofed dung and stick huts with a double wall of severe thorn fence, enclosing both the cattle and the 'manyatas' or 'banda' huts. The only way in is a small door through which one must bend over to enter. Out here men live and die for their cows. It is common for a man to die defending his cattle and we have met way too many widows with 2-5 kids, who are barely surviving after their men were killed by 'raiders'. Everything escalated from clubs and spears to rampant shootings when the Sudan war broke out, leaving behind a thriving arms trading market. This has caused an uncanny situation where Karamojan men and women, barely covered with wrapped blankets and rubber tire sandals, have a machine gun or AK47 slung over their shoulder in an attempt to stay alive. We met several men who have given up their cattle because they didn't want to get caught in the crossfire.
People are afraid to drive in remote areas because rare groups of raiders have become bandits or 'highway-men' like the days of old. They will attack private vehicles to steal from the passengers, often killing them and acquiring yet another gun from the soldier guard. In Kaabong about 20 young men with blanket wraps were running full tilt down the street out into the desert, with 10 armed soldiers in hot pursuit. We were told "Oh, that's because they are naked under their blanket", which didn't make sense, but later the laughing soldiers told us they have outlawed the blanket wraps in town because the men hide their guns underneath. Somehow it just doesn't look the same to have a proud warrior in his fancy hat sporting only a feather and a pair of fluorescent high riding shorts. Guns have changed life here forever, another long term effect of war torn regions.
Aside from the increased raiding violence, life in a Karamojan village is the same as it has been for centuries. Women now try to raise a little garden of maize and red sorghum, rain permitting. Lacking a successful crop a goat is sold to buy a gourd full of sorghum in the nearby market. These same women who toil so hard carrying heavy water containers on their heads for miles, take great pride in their appearance, especially when making the long journey into town to hang out at the lively market. From an early age the girls embark on their unique and often painful road to beauty. Front teeth are removed, intricate patterns are carved or cut into their faces, ghee is smeared over their skin and hair to encourage softness, small leather amulets from sacrificed cows are worn on their bosoms to ward off evil spirits and beads are collected to string into large colorful collars and belts. These are the baits required to attract and catch a good husband. Beauty is only in the eye of the cocky suitor, with his hat and flashy feather, indicating to everyone he is on the prowl for a new woman. One such character offered Joseph 3 goats for me to come home with him. If he hadn't smelled like the goats he was tending or had had more than 3 teeth in his head I may have considered it! Could I really settle down happily into his little dung hut love nest? Nah! He and I are both nomads but I have a wider range. I would miss my fun adventure traveling the globe with my dear Joseph. But then again they say everyone has their price - throw in a camel and some extra beads and who knows?!
Heading north from Entebbe, our first stop was Jinja. We searched out the source of the Nile River, 6000 km south of Cairo. Running out from Lake Victoria the source was 'discovered' in the 1860's, saying good bye to a few gallons in the process. The Nile is the longest river in the world. It flows from south to north from here to the Mediterranean Sea, over 4000 miles. A bronze bust of Mahatma Gandhi commemorates the spot where part of his ashes were thrown into the Nile in 1948, as per his wishes that they be scattered in several of the world's greatest rivers. The Victoria Nile of Uganda becomes the White Nile in Sudan, the Blue Nile in Ethiopia and the mighty Nile in Egypt. If you watch closely in the bushes behind one of our truck pit stops you will see the Yellow Nile flowing freely.
Bujagali Falls, 8 miles away, allows the Nile to widen out and makes it more apparent why this is one of the mightiest rivers in the world. Rafters ride the Class V rapids and occasionally a local swimmer, for a fee of $2.50, will jump in the fray with a plastic jerry can tied to his arm. Out he pops down river. Crazy & dangerous, a few have never resurfaced in the churning current. While hiking in to see these beautiful forested rapids we saw several men loading traditional drums into a truck. We asked where they were performing and we were invited to hear their tribal group sing, dance and play at the Cool Breeze Hotel courtyard. They put their hearts & souls into their first official performance, organized to encourage traditional arts in the area. We were their only audience so we hooted and clapped loudly and had a fun time moving to the beat of the drums.
We made a detour to Moses Camp on a high ridge overlooking impressive Sipi Falls as it thundered below. We chose to stay in an authentic, clean round thatched roofed banda, complete with mud floors and no electricity for 4 days, enjoying the quiet star filled nights by candlelight. We were entertained by a marauding band of monkeys and noisy hornbills daily. Wandering into the surrounding foothills of Mt Elgon, we enjoyed the scenic vistas in every direction; of the lush river gorge, the 3 sets of waterfalls and the vast Rift Valley plains below. We passed our time hanging out with the locals at their sparse farmers market, our first indication of how poor the rural Ugandans are.
Reminiscent of our journey to explore remote Turkana country in northern Kenya, we traveled the arduous eastern route from Sipi Falls up into 'no man's land' of northern Uganda. It is a journey only for hard core travelers who look forward to the experiences awaiting them on the road less traveled. The paved road stops abruptly as we found ourselves bumping along the dusty road to Moroto. Out in the middle of nowhere, hours into the arid desert, the bus lurched to a stop. A small group of gritty villagers climbed on the bus. I helped a struggling mother lift her toddler over a pile of baggage in the aisle and settle into the seats across from us. She was a rare young beauty with decorative markings carved into her face. The teacher sitting next to me asked her name and about the markings on her face. We were told they cut the girls faces with knives and razor blades at ages 12-15 and pack the cuts with herbs to create a scar. She told us it hurts but makes the women beautiful. Loromong then proceeded to drop her top and nurse her young baby, who was suffering from a respiratory infection. The toddler hanging on Mom's blanket wrap had pink eye but never said "boo" or whined the whole trip. At one point Loromong was nursing the baby, jostling the toddler on her other knee, stepping on the two chickens under her seat, and snorting tobacco from a small bottle; like directing a symphony. Her little 8 year old girl sat with inquisitive eyes taking everything in. Before they got off I tied a pretty cloth bracelet on her thin wrist as she smiled coyly from ear to ear. Poor as it gets, we bumped along in the intense heat and not a complaint was heard from this little wide eyed family - only smiles. We in the west have a lot to learn and should be taking notes on many accounts, rather than only coming here to give advice.
As the trees thinned out we started seeing only thatched roofed hut compounds, scrub brush savannah with large bolder hills rising above and Karamoja wandering with herds of livestock (reduced now mainly to goats). The drought is causing pasturelands to dry up and encroachment is inevitable. It used to be that the shepherd was overpowered and his livestock stolen but with the introduction of guns the 'raiders' simply shoot the herder and steal his cattle. This infuriates the victim's tribe and they retaliate. Soldiers patrolling the area are prime targets because their guns and uniforms fetch a high price. Like the cavalry in the Wild, Wild West, security forces have increased and in an effort to stop this rustling and ambushes by bandits on passing vehicles we saw truckloads of soldiers and even a tank?! rumbling by. I guess enough is enough. Time for a change in customs.
Walking the dusty streets of Moroto, searching the markets for fruits and vegetables that aren't as dried out as the landscape; and passing through the refugee areas encircling the town, pushes the problem of overpopulation and subsequent drought and starvation into your face. In your face are the desperate or vacant stares of people who have walked days from their village lands that have turned into dustbowls; knowing that at least here the relief organizations such as "Save the Children" or the United Nations will provide food for those family members who survived the long hot journey. A kind word or piece of fruit goes a long way but is just a drop in a bottomless bucket. Giving money or food is impossible as hundreds of others will gather and push in a desperate attempt to get something from the white 'muzungu'. While traveling in these desolate areas one cannot help but come away with a bad taste for relief organizations. Millions of dollars are collected annually from honest citizens worldwide wanting to help Africans. What happens to this money? Most is gobbled up by administration. We met a local man who had spent 2 years employed at making fake books of expenses for NGO and government relief programs. We saw local workers driving around in big white expensive air conditioned SUVs and staying in top end hotels with pools, while people around them suffered. The worst was a big, fat local worker from "Save the Children" sitting in a sidewalk cafe gorging himself on a whole chicken, grease running down his chin. Next to him was a small child, rags hanging off him, begging. Our friends shamed him into giving the child a coin. Even with all the corruption and slight of hand disappearance of relief funding or food these organizations provide a service that others are unable to. Make sure you always research what percentage of each dollar you donate actually reaches the people intended to help. Smaller NGO's or church groups are also active up here helping with food, clothing, schools, bathrooms, wells, huts and soul saving; trying to alleviate the suffering a bit. We all need to do our part to help in this world of ours. As we have mentioned many times, besides helping with 'random acts of kindness' as we travel along we donate towards education, the only thing that will hopefully have a lasting effect in making changes to improve such desperate situations.
One thing we noticed was that the frustration was taken out on each other as arguments escalated into physical violence such as shouting, pushing, hitting with sticks and even punching each other. We witnessed 4 such outbreaks in the 2 days we were walking around. One fight broke out next to me in the market as the female stall owner ran after a woman with a baby on her back, yelling then hitting her, all over the theft of one potato. A small boy seized the opportunity during the ruckus to quickly sift through the black coals next to him, grab the burned end of a sweet potato and race off behind a tree to chew on it, black dripping down his smiling chin. A bright spot in all this was meeting Florence at her sister's cafe, Charlotte's Restaurant, right down the only block paved in town. Florence, born here, has returned from 25 years in the Netherlands where she is a professor of sociology, to start up a school for 80% girls and 20% boys. We cooked together over the charcoal fire, adding tasty Ugandan style peanut sauce to our vegetables, followed by a pleasant evening stroll and talk. Florence is an independent, determined woman who knows how life operates here in Uganda and will definitely be successful in winning local support for her worthwhile project. Education is the key.
Rumor had it that there was one working internet connection at the post office and since there isn't even electricity up north we raced off to try our luck. Working for only 5 minutes we had to return the next day. Our perseverance paid off as we actually were on line for another 20 minutes in a hurried attempt to send off emails previously written and stored on our flash drive. When we arrived the computer was being used by a local journalist from Kampala who has been assigned here for the last 18 months, covering the flare ups of violence in the Karamojan district. He had just sent in his story about an ambush nearby the previous day in which a truck was attacked by 'raiders', as they are called. Buses are safe to ride on, with their 6 plus armed soldiers but most private trucks have a soldier with a machine gun riding in the back. These bandits had shot the guard then killed 2 local passengers and wounded one American consultant on board. The journalist asked if we wanted to see the bloody photos of the attack. We declined, having learned our painful lesson of looking at the gory photos on the front page of Ugandan newspapers or catching a more than explicit news story on TV. With this news we were ready to turn around. We may be crazy travelers but we aren't looking for trouble! The journalist promised the road to Kotido was secured and this was confirmed by several soldiers and a UN worker we consulted.
Before we knew it we were bouncing along the dusty, jarring dirt road north to Kotido. Our fellow passengers were friendly, mostly villagers picked up seemingly out in the middle of nowhere. From nowhere - heading nowhere. The women were all carrying huge bundles and a baby or two, often breasts bare and the sun showing off the decorative scars on their faces. When Joseph tried opening the bus window wider, it shattered in his hand and luckily he was able to push it out in one swift move before any glass fell inside. This meant that everyone in the back half of the bus looked liked brown powdered sugar donuts covered in dirt as we staggered off the bus onto the even dustier streets of Kotido. Looking like a combination of a barren town in the Australian Outback, a remote outpost in western China or a scene from a desolate planet in "Star Wars", we set out to discover what made it tick. Joseph got his hair cut with scissors in a little shanty after we bought the only bananas we found in town for the following morning's breakfast. By dusk we were eating chick pea somosas around one of the many little campfires lighting the totally dark main road.
Stars broke through and lit our way home to the Skyline Hotel. We sat outside for 2 hours in the pitch dark chatting with Pope, the new 19 year old owner left the hotel by his obviously Catholic Grandfather. Since Ugandans survive mainly on 'matoke', (mashed cooking bananas) and beans and more beans, we noticed little punctuations to the quiet surroundings. Everyone went wild with laughter as we offered a rousing rendition of "Beans, beans the musical fruit, the more you eat the more you toot........". We told 'the Pope' that it could be the theme song for his new establishment. Not much else was happening so we started counting passing vehicles and/or dark shapes in the night. After 2 hours we were up to a grand total of 5 & three quarters: 3 trucks (1 point each) 4 motorcycles (1/2 point each) and 3 dogs (1/4 point each). Counting the millions of stars would have been an endless task so we just relaxed and enjoyed the still, balmy night.
The next morning we set off in search of the market and were surprised and delighted as we passed through a narrow alleyway to find a bustling weekly Karamojan market, outside the regular public market. Hundreds of villagers were gathered in a tumble of bargaining for goats, tiny homegrown tomatoes, dried roots, small dried fish or powdered sniffing tobacco. We learned from a 77 year old man sporting an imitation cowboy hat that they haven't had a substantial rain up here in 6 years. This was confirmed by the municipal secretary overseeing the unloading of bags of sorghum, from western Uganda. The Karamojan pastoralists sell their skinny dehydrated cows or goats in exchange for buckets of the reddish-brown grain to sustain their family. Although there are a number of local relief aid workers driving around in their gas guzzling SUV's keeping an eye on the situation, it seems that the local economy still allows for buying and selling of this grain, so free food isn't provided. As the cattle and outlying villagers get skinnier and more dehydrated it is obvious that relief food will become necessary to prevent starvation. With the drought, increase in population and the desert moving south, there are dark storm clouds on the horizon but they don't contain rain. Is ignorance bliss?
Why with such a desperate scenario do we see more smiles here than walking down a street in the western world? We were the only white 'muzungus' we saw in our 3 days here. We were met with looks of amazement, rubbing of our white arms or feeling my 'soft' hair, and a continual stream of smiles followed by a handshake. Sometimes their hand would flip over in hope of a handout but mostly we were simply greeted with a genuine welcome. They haven't quite learned the annoying habit of trying to milk the 'muzungus' wallet. We had fun teaching our 5 or 6 part Hawaiian handshakes, made up at the time with our special moves, including shaking hands, then fingers, then thumbs, then punching, holding our hand over our heart and the biggest crowd pleaser the finale of "the Fonz" slicking back his hair like a peacock. At this the crowd usually goes wild with laughter as we all just play together, communicating in pantomime or gestures; bridging the gap between our lack of the local dialect and their lack of English. We noticed many different skin diseases and extended bellies (caused by parasites or malnutrition) in little children. Most small girls carried babies around and really old looking elders were often younger than we were. People coveted small handfuls of the hard, dusty sorghum berries 'borrowed' from the large market piles, slowly trying to chew them for nourishment.
The Sunday Market was packed with villagers of all ages from the outlying area. Many men, much to our delight were decked out in a wide variety of hats, our favorite the tall striped newly arrived "Cat in the Hat" models. Women were wearing either totally thread bare western hand me downs or their colorful traditional cloth wraps over gathered or pleated skirts, adorned with bright strings of beads around their waist or necks. Most everyone had a shaved head or with a few 'AM/FM antennae' sticking out or braids close to the scalp. No fancy fake hair extensions up here. After showing our photos to groups of villagers they got the idea that we had a family and were teachers, so were receptive to having their photos taken. Actually they ended up crowding in to make sure they didn't miss out on the chance to see themselves in the magic little 3 by 3 digital screen. An enthusiastic "Ejoka! Good, Good" produced many proud grins as we appreciated their finery. After a couple of hours of market frenzy we slipped through the gates of the main market and observed what sells: bright second hand Indian saris cut up as shoulder wraps, brittle plastic transistor radios, combs or mirrors, mountains of second hand clothes left over from church bazaars and the usual rows of bright colored strands of beads from China. The current fashion here also were the loop earrings showcasing a large disk of yellow or red plastic cut from a fragment of a smashed brake or turning light, no doubt from one of the few vehicles driving around town. Surprisingly many are missing their plastic signal light covers.
We met Sofia, a beautiful 35 year old Muslim mother with 7 children, who took us to her bead shop where Karamojan parents often will sell a goat to pay for one of her colorful hand beaded belts, necklaces and matching bracelets; to adorn their daughter to catch the eye of a suitor. We sat in her shop for over 2 hours talking and greeting scraggly old ladies fascinated by my broken Samburu necklace we were re-beading. Joseph spent the time in an interesting discussion with her open minded, well read husband, before he rushed off to call to prayer in the small, unfinished local mosque. He was just finishing his 4 year University degree in Kampala and possibly their children will be withdrawn from the Sacred Mother Mary School to resettle in the city, if Dad gets a new job. It will be a big shock as they are drawn like moths towards the flame of city life. This gem in the rough town, although remote and lacking infrastructure (such as electricity) is a safe, friendly place to raise a family and I'm sure the quiet, star filled nights will be missed. Sofia introduced us to a tall friendly Karamojan villager who was 16 years, 6 feet tall and in the primary 2 grade with her 6 year old daughter. Seems, as with the Masai we got to know in Tanzania, the Karamojans are now allowing their children to go to school, realizing that their way of life as pastoralists is on the brink of disaster and change is inevitable. Can you think of any 16 year old boys you have known who would proudly join a class of 6 year olds just to get educated?
North even further to Kaabong (or El Kaabong of cartoon fame) we were in for another treat. Karamojan tribes people were hanging around the tiny town and we spent a jam packed afternoon sitting in the shade with old guys sporting new hats, women at the market selling tomatoes and cabbage and kids playing with our balloons in the sand of the wide, dry riverbed. We happened on a colorful group of old 'coots' running the tobacco market, people filing by purchasing just one 'line' of powdered tobacco for 5 cents a snort.
While enjoying our local lunch of sweet potatoes, beans and 'snot greens', we noticed a big ruckus outside. Two truckloads of soldiers pulled in and hundreds of men with sticks marched around a large herd of cattle filling the road. Excitement ran high in the village as we learned that these cattle were stolen by a tribe in Kotido and were successfully identified and recovered. We noticed many cattle with 10 notches cut in their ears and 20 different brands, all in an attempt to later identify them in case of theft. Life in Uganda's Wild, Wild East!
And so it goes.........................................Next month up to the lost valley of Kadepo, on the Sudanese border. Then south following the D. R. Congo border to Murchison Falls. Until then let's ask ourselves what story our eyes portray to those around us. Dignity, kindness, compassion, joy? Again, thanks for sharing this website with friends and family. We passed 50,000 hits last month! We are excited to be able to 'share the world' with so many interested folks. It IS a great world out here! Keep Smiling! Glad you stopped by. We look forward to hearing from you soon. Take care!
Love, Light &
$1.00USD = 2,000 Uganda Schillings (us)
From the Post Office walk down Main St. on your left, on a corner a couple of blocks down is a good Indian restaurant (veg curry 9,000). Walking down further past all the Indian supermarkets, 4-5 blocks on your right, is the best vegetarian Indian restaurant in town. Try their mixed vegetable curry (with an onion, tomato and pounded cashew sauce) and tandori naan. Yum. (8,000us).
Cool Breeze Hotel: Nalufenya Rd, 0712 897 766. On Sunday afternoons the Kisoga Dancers & Drummers put on a lively and fun show in the outdoor courtyard of the Cool Breeze. Come enjoy their energy from 2-5pm. 1000 entrance and you can buy a drink from the restaurant near by. They are trying to encourage the village singing and dancing of the local tribe and carry on their traditions to share with visitors and those in town. Come encourage this worthwhile effort.
Eat at Charlottes Restaurant:
Tasty local food at a good price. Say "Hi" to Florence from us,
if she is around.