Three walks out west

Searching for some seasonal peace we arrive at a “Safari Lodge” perched on a cliff above Lake Albert in Uganda’s Rift Valley. Looking towards the far western shore we can just see—or is it a cloud?—the outlines of the Congo’s Blue Mountain range. It is certainly quiet, except for a jolly party of Swedes enjoying a family reunion. Nice. We take a dusk stroll for a couple of kilometres into the savannah behind, startling brilliant birds out of the bushes and being startled ourselves by the occasional family of wart hogs, wiggling their cute tails as they trot away from our approach. There’s no danger of meeting scarier wildlife here, though, for the big game prospects have already been trumped by big oil.

This we learn from the lodge manager, Richard, a Makerere University trained zoologist. In the early 1990s, he tells us, there was real will in Uganda to protect and restore depleted wildlife reserves, if only to raise tourism revenues. (A ranger in the—now really quite good—Murchison Falls National Park, some eighty kilometres further down the rift, once told us that during the Idi Amin regime government soldiers shot thousands of elephants, not to mention antelopes, buck, cobs, etc.) But the new government had very little money to invest in the areas it gazetted for protection, so Lake Albert was selected for a private-public-partnership eco-tourism deal. A private investor was licenced to build the Safari Lodge, the only one that would be allowed in an 87 km2 area devoid of roads and virtually empty of people. Over time, species would be carefully re-introduced.

All went according to plan. A murram road was cut from the Rift Valley escarpment across twenty kilometres of virgin grassland to the lake, and the lodge was built. Existing populations of wart hogs and what I call “deer-type things” grew significantly, and one or two species were re-introduced. (Waterbuck and another deer-type thing.) These were to be followed by giraffe and White Rhino. No chance of that, though, since the oil prospectors came in three years ago.

It’s not that they’ve been wanton. Looking across the waving, nose-high grass you wouldn’t know they were here. But dozens of kilometres of access tracks have been carved through the savannah to seventeen test-drill sites. Even a couple of trucks per day, and the cloud-dusts each raises, would be enough seriously to piss off a rhino. And there will be more traffic than that in a year or so, once the political and commercial deals have been done, when the test-drills—now capped and protected by G4S security men—are re-opened, and the oil start to flow.

Meanwhile, those access tracks have also opened up the area for migrant Congolese fishermen. Fishing villages, Richard tells us, have sprung up all along the shore, for it is now possible to get the fish out to market. The evidence is spread before us as night falls over the Lake. To north and south it is illuminated by thousands of points of light:--high pressure hurricane lamps to trick the fish into nets thrown from dug-out canoes. It is wholly unsustainable, Richard complains: they are taking little Carpenter fish and the catches are ever smaller.

A trip next day to a village by the shore seems to confirm much of this. It is sprawling and squalid. The atmosphere is not exactly hostile, but the kids don’t crowd around to laugh and point and test their English greetings on the tourists who have strayed their way. We buy warm, fizzy drinks from a shack whose proprietor tells us that maybe half of the villagers come from the Congo, the rest mainly from inland Uganda. We watch families on the shore mending nets that are too fine-meshed to let much slip through.

Just outside the village is a Tullow test well, sealed and guarded. A hundred metres from it, a naked man is soaping himself for a wash in the lake.

Going back to the lodge we pass two articulated trucks raising a whirlwind of dust. They are each carrying a shipping container converted into half a dozen tiny rooms—bathrooms?—destined for the oil camp.

The Lodge barman, Abdul, tells us that at first the Tullow men used to come to eat and drink at the Lodge but they got wildly drunk and broke things and in the end were banned. Now they have to stay in their camp and are not allowed to drink. I imagine there’s more to the story than that. It must be tough deciding whether to cash in on the boom that is destroying your original dream.

Even the Murchison Falls park, is not immune from the conflicts that underlie the apparent peace here. There’s drilling there too and, conservationists tell us, the day the first test rig kicked into action, elephant herds migrated 30 kilometres west, towards the relative security of the war-torn Congo.

All very sad, but predictable. For who, choosing between a few million shillings from tourists or zillions from the black stuff, would opt for restoring rhinos to a place in the sun? And it was, after all, a petroleum-fired internal combustion engine that brought us here, not a magic carpet.

Tea and pith helmets but no flufftail

Two days later, 150 kilometres southwest along roads that bust up our exhaust silencer and split our battery casing, we take another walk—through the tea estates on the eastern flanks of the Ruwenzori mountain range—and hear another tale of migration.

It is supposed to be a guided bird-watching walk through the Kihingami wetland, “home of the white spotted flufftail .” But the guide, Alex, informs us when we arrive in mid-afternoon that this is the wrong time of day for seeing birds.

We stroll out anyway through some well-tended vegetable gardens alongside the tarmac ribbon of the Kampala-Fort Portal road, and into the dark green expanse of tea stretching away to the mountains in the west. To the east lies the Kibali Forest National Park, where guided walks cost more than we can afford. Between the two is a thin strip of marshy common where the flufftail lives.

Alex shows us how, when picking tea, you must pluck just the two topmost leaves and the tip of new-grown stems on the bushes. (Ah! So that explains the “PG Tips” I grew up with.) He shakes his head and remarks that it is all very bad for “local people.” Invited to elaborate, he explains that the pickers are paid sixty shillings (2.6 US cents) per kilo. The very best pickers can pick 150 kilos a day, earning nearly 10,000 shillings (USD 4.3). So, once kids have finished primary school, they don’t bother studying anymore. This in fact mainly affects Bachiga people: for it is they who do all the picking because, says Alex, they are “energetic and can work all day”—unlike, by implication, Batoro people, who might think they have a better claim to the “local” tag.

A fuller picture emerges as we amble through the tea towards the wetland. From around the 1920s, Alex tells us, the King of Toro—who was permitted by the British colonialists to keep ruling these parts, and who had ample natural resources but relatively few subjects—imported Bachiga people from Kabale (200 kilometres further south) to develop agriculture. Each family was allotted a plot of land to work, but they first had to clear it of dense forest, of which the Kibali National Park is the remaining vestige. For reasons that are not quite clear from Alex’s narrative, the Bachiga did not get to keep the land the land they cleared. Rather, under the modernising influence of European missionaries, the acidic, volcanic soils were turned over to tea estates. At first these belonged to whites, Alex says; now they belong to rich Ugandans and Kenyans. He’s a bit vague about this too. (In fact, as I learn later, many plantations belonged to Ugandan Indian families until they were expelled by Amin). But the main point is that the Bachiga have remained day labourers to this day.

We pass by several clusters of dormitories where these labourers live, some of them recent immigrants according to Alex. It appears from the lay-out that single men live in rooms on one side of the long, brick sheds, and families in identical rooms on the other side. Families, Alex tells us, may stay there as long as they have no more than two children; on the birth of a third child, they have to move out.

Alex, it turns out, is himself at least in part Bachiga, descended from a 1940s migrant; though, if I remember correctly, his mother’s family has hailed for much longer from the kingdom of Toro. He has progressed well beyond tea picking, having a diploma in Tourism Management from Nkumba University, and now he is studying at the Mountains of the Moon University for a diploma in Information Technology. The guided walks are nominally a “community project,” but many tourist ventures in Uganda carry that tag, and the details are always vague.

We don’t see any birds in the wetlands. There are red and black colobus monkeys thwackering about in the tree canopy along the boundary of the Forest National Park; but they are shy, hard to see as clearly as in many places we’ve been. (Alex says this is because they are actively hunted by groups of chimpanzees from within the Forest Reserve.) We are also gratified to find great piles of elephant dung along the Park boundary. I didn’t know they still had elephant there.

Back at home, I do a Google search for “Bachiga” and come across a study written in in the 1930s by May Mandelbaum Edel, “the first American woman anthropologist to live in an African village.” (“The Bachiga of East Africa,” included in “Cooperation and Competition Among Primitive Peoples” by Margaret Mead [ed.] 1937; republished by Transaction Publishers, 2002). It is a detailed and in some ways engaging piece, which in certain lights supports Alex’s view of the Bachiga as “energetic”, although in rather less positive terms. Edel repeatedly insists that “Individualism is the keynote of Bachiga social and economic life” (p. 127), stating that “Before the recent advent of the British, they were very warlike and highly anarchistic.” So few were the cooperative mechanisms in the community that “No Bachiga feels that another can be safely trusted.” (p. 135) Hmmm. Notably missing from Edel’s account is any mention of migration, or any sense that she was seeing only a fragment of time and place. Her Bachiga are pristine and eternally fixed, like a stuffed white spotted flufftail in a museum of natural history.

Dripping teats, tits and nipples

The next day we take what turns out to be the most enjoyable of our three walks.

Hanging out in Fort Portal while Kate and I were ambling through the wetlands, our sons had been approached by a boda boda driver who offered to take them to a place with “thousands of drooping breasts.” They took him to mean a brothel, and demurred. But it turned out to be a reference to the Breasts of Nyinamwiru caves, just a few kilometres outside Fort Portal, on a large and prosperous farmstead that enjoys uninterrupted views of the Ruwenzori mountains.

Our guide this time is William, who guides tourists by day while completing high school in the evenings. He leads us through a few neatly kept meadows, which are oddly reminiscent of my grandad’s peasant smallholding in Herefordshire, and then suddenly down into a steep gorge where a long shelf of overhanging rock conceals shallow “caves” curtained, in one spot, by a vigorous waterfall. Their principal feature is a series of stalactites (most of which, to all appearances, have been snapped off), which are said to resemble breasts, with chalky water dripping from them.

William delivers a short geological lecture on the formation of stalactites, pointing out how some look like women’s breasts, others like cows’ udders. It’s hard to avoid snickering inanely, and we struggle to resist enlarging his English vocabulary of synonyms: “knockers,” “bristols” and “busters” come to mind as exotic forms he probably won’t have heard of in his Senior 6 class; but the list is potentially endless.

William then launches into the legend of Nyinamirwu and, as it becomes apparent that this will last a long time, we become more obediently attentive. It is a good story too: a king who fears his own daughter’s beauty, and so subjects her to radical mastectomy as a precaution against regicide; but that doesn’t deter her suitors; her father orders the bastard child she bears to be murdered but the servants take pity and leave it by a stream, where it is rescued by a poor goatherd; the bastard gets rich from the goat milk trade, comes to court, kills granddad and assumes the throne. Something like that, anyway, as full of ironic destiny and human predicament as any Greek tale, though I forget the details. I tried to look it up on Google when I got home but was directed mainly to Japanese porn sites. African myth is not yet quite out there.

This was only the start, not the end, of William’s tour, which took us on a two-hour hike over a couple of hills, with many pauses to consult the Birds of East Africa bible, to a volcanic crater lake hemmed by flowering trees and orchids. It’s quite a good way to start a new year.

Kampala, January 10, 2011