Uganda diary: Motorbikes, mountains, and starving orphans

24 10 2010

Life’s most memorable moments are often those that abruptly and impolitely arrive in our lives without invitation or expectation. They sometimes invoke a sensation of the event occurring externally to your life – an out-of-body, surreal experience.

Such experiences range from the trivial, like when I was five and I rode my brand new BMX (first bike without stabilisers) straight into a barbed wire fence, to the more heart-crushing moments, such as family bereavement.

When writing a blog about somewhere like Uganda (or any other African country), it’s hard to avoid the clichés and chunks of information which the reader has already heard and already been told.

I’m telling you that now, because this blog post will probably sound like the generic Africa experience. Not the one where people bounce along bumpy tracks in a zebra-pattern Land Rover Defender on an epically amazingly incredibly culturally phenomenal search for the rare Grey Mountain Charging African Bazooka Rhino. No, my experience was akin to the sombre and heart-wrenching appeals on Children in Need and Comic Relief.

Early morning walk…

Before I explain what the above paragraphs are about, I’ll provide some context. We got up quite early (6:30am) on Sunday 22 August. An hour and some breakfast later, Vianney, Emma and I were on the back of a couple of bodas. We drove to the boda stage in Buhoma, and stopped. Some fuel-filling and boda swapping happened, and, for the first time in Uganda, I had a boda to myself.

Up until that point, I’d only ever shared a boda with Emma. So, the experience of not sandwiching my hand between my back and the rear bar of the bike was a welcome treat. Another luxury with only having two people, rather than three, on a motorbike is that my male bits had some room.

Eventually, we left the boda stage and a few minutes later turned up a wide path (it wasn’t a road). Our convoy of bodas went down steep hills, and up steeper ones. We did unintentional wheelies, lots of wheelspinning, and lots of bouncing over bumps. It was brilliant fun!

…up a mountain

Sadly, the amusing boda journey came to an end when we reached the bottom of a certain path. The purpose of the day was to walk up to a village up in the mountains, and discuss plans to construct a rainwater-retention water tank (the reasons will become clear shortly). We were joined by Milton and a couple of other blokes called Sam and Soul (think that was his name). One was the village chairman, and the other was someone else who did something important.

Milton had warned me and Emma that the walk would be tough. Emma’s dad used to do hill-running, so storming up hills is in Emma’s blood. I ran six miles for charity in March – I hoped this would stand me in good stead.

Just 100 metres into the walk and my aching leg muscles suggested I hadn’t done as much exercise as my rose-tinted glasses had led me to believe. But, thanks to a hefty breathing pattern – consuming most of Bwindi’s oxygen supply – and taking on lots of Uganda’s finest bottled water, I kept pace, and my legs were kind enough not to get any worse.

After 45 minutes of walking, and me doing my best to appear as a hardy – albeit pale – Brit, we stopped for a break in the soft (yet fairly warm) morning sun.

The view was like a child’s drawing, with all the mountains following a uniform triangular shape; like a series of overlapping pyramids, each covered in trees.

It was also at this point that I understood why the village needed a water tank. Their source of water (outside of rainy season) is the river which flows between the mountains, which is where we had walked from. Every day, villagers have to walk down the mountain before each lugging a jerry can back up.

Eventually we got going again. A small girl, probably about four or five, spotted us, and walked with us, then in front of us, then ran off. Here I was, at the age of twenty, sweating every drop of water I was consuming, my leg muscles a-burnin’, with a four year old comfortably whooping my arse up a mountain.

Mobiles on mountains

We made it to the village and were greeted by the locals, with each cheerfully grasping and shaking our hands. Apparently, we were right next to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). So we went for a walk to the border. When we got there, it turned out we weren’t at the border, but we could see it! Somebody pointed somewhere to where it was, and I nodded and said: “oh right” and smiled. But if I’m honest, I didn’t have a clue where it was. I could see trees and mountains, and that was it.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is over there. Dunno where, but it's somewhere over yonder.

Interestingly, and a sign that there is still an unfortunate residue from the two countries’ history together, only the women from the village go to the market across the border. Women shop, men fight – that’s why only women are allowed.

There was a rather bizarre moment as we looked out to the DRC. All those with a mobile phone got them out, and looked at them intently. I didn’t have a clue why, until Vianney pointed at ‘CELTEL DRC’ on his phone – the mobile network from the Congo. Yes, we’d walked up a mountain and here we were looking at network providers.

We were then taken through the village to a meeting area.

Along the way, we passed mud huts, and the children we dressed in mostly worn-out clothes, and too many had small abnormalities, such as growths on their faces, presumably a result of waterborne infections. We were also shown where, during the rainy season, the water is taken from. The picture is below.


Everyone soon got down to business. There were two public meetings, with Milton translating, split up by having a look at the proposed water tank site. I also took on my new job of taking pictures of people, and then showing them their picture (it’s a lovely feeling being able to communicate with people without words).

After the second and final meeting, we said our goodbyes, shook lots of hands, eventually left, and started our journey back. Five minutes later, it came to a sudden heart-wrenching stop.

A sad reality

We approached a mud house with five children sat outside. Milton turned to me and said: “These children have malnutrition.” An impromptu mini-humanitarian aid effort followed.

I gave a bruised and squidgy banana from my bag and gave it to a small girl, who ate it immediately. In my bag were mine, Vianney’s and Emma’s lunches. We took no time in distributing them among the six or seven children (the food comprised bananas, some pineapple, some biscuits, hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches and small cartons of ‘Splash’ juice), and left a large bottle of mineral water with the grandmother.

While we were there, we discovered that the children were from the same family, and were orphans. They were living with their ageing grandmother. It is an unpleasant thing to think, but, with the grandmother looking so old and frail, how much longer will she be around for, and what will happen to those children? A possible answer is that the oldest child will become the head of the family.

No number of hours of charity appeals, be it by the Disasters Emergency Committee or the BBC’s Comic Relief, can have anywhere near the same effect as knowing what it is like to feed a starving orphaned boy a hard-boiled egg.

As unpleasant as it was, I hope I never forget it. Somehow, I don’t think I will.