"Ex Africa semper aliquid novi", quoth Pliny the Elder. There is some debate about what he really meant, but most likely he meant trouble. In this sense has the phrase been used most often since but I hope to reverse the trend and on these pages bring you the exciting, novel and curious out of Africa.

And wherever I am I hope to remain,
Ex Africa Semper Yours,

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Boat to Wadi Halfa

I scarcely remember the uneventful and smooth journey from Cairo to Aswan, other than, a rather unrepresentative for those troubled times, encounter with Egyptian Armed Forces, embodied in a single friendly soldier who bought me my train ticket at the ‘residents’ counter, effectively decimating its price. 

The journey begins
The plan was to get a boat from Aswan to Wadi Halfa – the only way to cross the border between Sudan and Egypt. Why there is no border crossing anywhere else across the hundreds of miles of Egypto-Sudanese border, I shall never now. Perhaps it’s easier to police the one and only ferry that crosses Lake Nasser every week.

There are many myth and legends surrounding the logistics of getting the ferry. It is indeed a harrowing process so I will give my account of them in a separate post for any fellow travellers who are looking for clarification.

For the purpose of this account it suffices to say I miraculously managed to secure a ticket for my passage. Matthias, a fellow-traveller whose acquaintance I struck a few days earlier, also managed to get in and we settled comfortably under a life-raft on the top deck and awaited the boat’s departure while watching our surroundings with interest.

Ahmed in his fortress
The frenzied procedure of boat-loading is a sight not to be missed. It’s worth arriving early not only to secure a good spot, but also to behold it. Other passengers certainly didn’t believe in travelling light. It seemed as if every passenger was carrying a TV set as hand-luggage, in addition to the fridges and ovens sticking out of their bags.

The Sudanese go to Egypt to trade and bring back goods ill-available at home. Due to embargoes and poor state of domestic manufacturing many household appliances are beyond the means of many. Ahmed, a thirty-something teacher of English from Khartoum with whom I spoke during the slow hours of the passage, told me how he tries to go to Egypt every year, financing his journey through the sale of Egyptian T-shirts in Khartoum. He buys household items for himself and his mother. This time he bought a boom-box.

Thanks to this entrepreneurial spirit our boat got filled in no time, with boxes and cartons piled in every available corner, many of them forming impenetrable fortresses behind which lucky owners squatted, jealously guarding their space and belongings. Interestingly, right from the start a large space was enclosed with single wall of boxes – that formed the prayer square.

Extra barge almost loaded
Top-deck was certainly not enough to accommodate all those bags, boxes and baskets so soon a second barge had to be attached to our boat. Loading it looked uncannily like filling a dumpster. Luggage was thrown, protesting owners pushed, loaders yelled at, children lifted overhead, animals dragged under foot. There must have been a method to this madness but not one that I could discern during the six hours of observation.

When I got tired of watching I went back to lie down under my life-raft. I put my rucksack under my head and prepared to nap when suddenly suffocating darkness engulfed me. A big, warm blanket was thrown over my head and body. When I scrambled from under it I saw an excessively bearded face apologetically looming over me. It belonged to a man in a white embroided jellaba who made it clear with his gestures that he wished me to remain covered with it. Obviously, my feminine curves  - in my baggy khaki pants, dirty loose safari shirt and big trekking boots - were just too much to have to endure.

Some men preached, others fished
This was my first encounter with what turned out to be the Conversion Squad, a group of seven imams on their way from Cairo to Sudan on a religious mission. They did not speak English, and would not speak to me directly, so I did not manage to find out who and to what exactly they were trying to convert in Islamic Sudan but they certainly tried their best with my fellow-traveller Matthias.

While they would not address me, nor look at me for long they did however try to connect. Possibly aware of my opposition to the heavy blanket they tried to placate my anger with gifts. First, a piece of sweet candy landed on my blanket dropped by a passing imam. Second, came a little triangle of cheese-spread. Then another. Than a whole round box of cheese, followed by a whole bag of the same sweet candy. All thrown from a respectable distance by a messenger who would then scuttle away before I could make eye contact. Last was thrown a little vial of sweet-smelling perfume.

I must have single-handedly depleted their whole conversion fund for Sudan, they were very generous. I for one thought it better to stay on their good side: one, the blanket turned out to be very useful during the chilly night on the boat; two, someone listening to the radio brought news that the Americans killed Osama bin Laden that very day. There was no visible outburst of emotion at the news, but given the fact Osama used to live in Khartoum and Americans are not very popular in the country anyway Matthias and I decided to keep a low profile on the boat.

Abu Simbel seen from the boat
This did not stop me into the venturing in the hot belly of the boat, its lower decks. Women and children stay below deck, in cabins and open seated areas. This is deemed more decent than the top deck agora where men hold sway. It is also considered healthier than the chilly air. I have my doubts about that one. The humid, stifling, hot air, imbued with thousand smells of food and sweat, the murky water running down the corridors, the rubbish and sheer mass of people made the place a living hell. I went downstairs, exchanged my food voucher for a very dodgy looking gruel, ful and chapatti and resurfaced on the breezy deck again.

The night was peaceful and starry and I slept as soundly as one can while waking it every hour or so to check if my bag was still there. But the morning awakening was glorious for I was shook awake by fellow-passengers to witness the splendour of Ancient Egyptian ruins of Abu Simbel arising from morning haze. Spectacular.

Wadi Halfa Port
A few hours more and there we were, on the Sudanese side. The famous Wadi Halfa - proud outpost of British civilisation during the Mahdi Campaigns, the frontier town on the rail that stretched deep into the unknown, an oasis in the hostile desert. Well, in reality Wadi Halfa is a bit of a let down. Partly because the old Wadi Halfa is no more because of the building of the Nasser Dam and subsequent flooding, partly because the British and their rail are also long gone, the town is not quite the 'the sharp line between civilisation and savagery' that Churchill described in his River War. The port is in the middle of nowhere, nothing but a couple of customs buildings, one short jetty and empty ship carcasses strewn about. The little town is some way off, away from the lake and river, lost in all that blinding sandy whiteness.

But, hey, it’s still a gateway to the proud Sudan and I was very happy to have made it there at last.

The Journey Continues

Why, it's been a while since I've last written. Lay it down at my laziness, although there were a couple of other factors involved, like trying to finally settle somewhere more permanent. But it's now or never for this story and now is as good as time as ever.

From the Sands of  the North....
The next chapters that you are about to read are all about a journey I finished almost exactly a year ago. The aim of the journey was to travel from Cairo to Juba, across what was then still united Sudan. I was probably the last person to do this trip while the country was still one. I was also probably one of the few Western women to ever venture alone on this particular route in an attempt to cross one of Africa's least traveled regions.

The journey took a month. I rushed through Egypt, possibly foolishly given its recent turbulent history and revolutionary changes, but I had my eyes on a more exciting story. I crossed the northern Sudan (what is now just Sudan) - something I had really wanted to do after hearing nothing but bad things about it from Southern Sudanese and foreigners alike. I then got arrested in Nuba Mountains, just as they were going to erupt into the bloody conflict that lasts to this day. This arrest and my subsequent speedy abandonment of the region probably saved my life and limb - the dubious thrill of this adventure convinced me to take a UN chopper south instead of taking the Darfur road (my only other option), which - unbeknownst to me at the time - would have taken me straight through to rebel controlled road blocks.

....to the SPLA in the South
Instead I was delivered safely to Wau, far in the north-west of southern Sudan. Journey from there revealed to me the full extent of the wisdom of those who cautioned against travelling in South Sudan's tropical jungles during the rainy season. But neither mozzies, mud nor malaise could stop one who is aided and abeted by the jolly men of Sudan People's Liberation Army - as I was at times when trying to hitch-hike in (or rather out of) this post-conflict area. 

It took 3 days of soaking and washing to get the red mud out off my rucksack and trousers by the time I reached Juba, the South's capital and pride. Here my journey ended, but the journey of the country only just began. I got there in time to witness the historic moment of South Sudan's indpepenence, I was there when a new country was born. The joys and tribulations of these two journeys is something I'd like to now share with you in the following posts. 

Getting the Aswan - Wadi Halfa Ferry

Wadi Halfa Ferry

Some Traveler Tips 

The myths and legends circulating on the internet blogs and fora surrounding the purchase of the tickets are countless. Just in case some lost traveller is reading this in search of information I will authoritatively state that: the Wadi Halfa boat office is in Aswan proper - on the river front - not in the port. There is an office that opens in the port in the morning of the boat's departure - which is Monday -  but it is inadvisable to count on it – it seems to only issue food vouchers for the trip.

I managed to get my ticket there but this was only because the ubiquitous Mr. Saleh, the manager of the Aswan office (could be a bit more friendly, but efficient) had one set aside for me on my visit to the main office a few days before – two other foreigners that arrived in the morning hoping to get tickets were turned away. Ideally, arrive in Aswan by Thursday at the latest to have a greater chance.

There are only two classes at the ferry – cabin and deck – and their prices are EGP 500 and 320 respectively (up from 400 and 200 earlier this year). The locals were  paying 320 too and we have been repeatedly assured there are no 3rd class tickets – I am inclined to believe that is the case. The customs are straightforward, but arrive early on Monday to secure a shaded and secluded place on the boat – we were let on around 10am and left by 4pm but by midday the boat was already quite full.

This info was correct as of May 2011.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

An Introspection

A quote from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Not a description of your average tourist. But of your average backpacker, possibly? Of me certainly.

"The glamour of youth enveloped his particolored rags, his destitution, his loneliness, the essential desolation of his futile wanderings. For months--for years--his life hadn't been worth a day's purchase; and there he was gallantly, thoughtlessly alive, to all appearance indestructible solely by the virtue of his few years and of his unreflecting audacity. I was seduced into something like admiration-- like envy. Glamour urged him on, glamour kept him unscathed. He surely wanted nothing from the wilderness but space to breathe in and to push on through. His need was to exist, and to move onwards at the greatest possible risk, and with a maximum of privation. If the absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure had ever ruled a human being, it ruled this be-patched youth. I almost envied him the possession of this modest and clear flame."

Friday, 25 February 2011

Exiting Kenya, or How the Wealth of Nations is Built on Cabbage

I was very hopeful I would be able to get out of Loralang the very same day. After all, I reckoned, I smelled so badly of no-longer-so-dry fish that the villagers should be all too happy to set me off on my way ASAP. Loralang on the western shore of Lake Turkana is incomparably bigger and more advanced than Solicho. The main street boasts some fifteen brick buildings, including a number of little shops and a restaurant owned by Mama Habiba’s daughter, Sarah. Trucks bringing in supplies and carrying away the delicious, yet stinky, Tilapia fish (all the way to Rwanda apparently) are much more frequent. I was not disappointed and after a relatively short, four hour wait we set off in the direction of Lodwar, a big town on the Nairobi-Sudan road.

After an uneventful, eight hour journey through the arid wastelands (the road runs parallel to the lake shore for a while but, unfortunately, a little distance from it so the views are not as spectacular as they could be) we arrived in Lodwar after midnight. The sight of a sure signs of civilisation that greeted me in this sizable crossroad town, i.e. tarmac and a petrol station, would have brought tears of joy into my eyes if I had not been so tired, sleepy and confused as to what to do next.

Arriving on your own to a new town at night is never a pleasant experience and one of the few things in travelling I dread. Streets are usually abandoned or full of, what seems like, shady characters. If they are quiet it’s spooky, and if they are full of noises, these usually sound threatening. Distances seem longer and topography is unclear. To ask for directions is to betray your confusion, manifest your vulnerability and invite trouble. With that wisdom in mind and without the faintest clue as to where any lodgings might be, I walked decisively and purposefully in a random direction, away from the few boda-boda drivers, touts and soldiers loitering in the dark around the trucks.

As I describe here (no. 5) a stroke of luck and the kindness of a boda driver got me to a hotel, where I could for the first time in over a week be alone, enjoy a shower and electricity. If it wasn’t for that all-pervasive smell of fish, I would have been very happy indeed.

The next day brought further luxuries such as coke, internet and even a bookshop where I bought the only book on Sudan they had in hope it would contain even the sketchiest map of the country I was about to venture into. It didn’t and it was quite unreadable.

Lodwar, in addition to the two petrol stations and the bookshop, also boasts a supermarket and a very popular juice shop. These kept me entertained while I waited in vain for a matatu to Kakuma, a UN refugee camp at the boarder with Sudan, to fill up. After two hours of waiting I got fed up and decided to try my luck with the lorries which I saw passing every now and again.

In bigger places, such as Lodwar there is usually a place where lorry touts gather and hail down passing vehicles to arrange passage for anyone who wants it. They get a percentage of the fare the passenger pays to the lorry driver. In theory it is an efficient system but the negotiations and shouting before the departure always takes a while and it is never entirely clear how much and to whom you need to pay, if at all. But if the driver waves the fee, as it happened to me on a number of occasions, he has to face the touts who often still demand a fee either from the passenger or the driver, as they had, after all, helped one to find a transport. These situations require quite a lot of patience, negotiating skills and tact – luckily almost invariably fellow passengers guide you as to what the appropriate response to the demands is.

I was lucky again and in no time at all secured a place in the cabin of a cabbage truck. In London, I have attended a number of lectures at the LSE, but it was on board of that truck that I have had my most informative and fun lesson in micro-economics. During the four hour drive I was being entertained by the owner of the truck with stories about his budding cabbage and charcoal business. As my only experience with supply-demand chain, logistics, price differentials and fright routes had up to that point come from sending virtual goods caravans in Civilisation II games, I listened enchanted as he explained that there he can sell his cabbage in the barren Kakuma camp for 60Ksh per head, while in his native Eldoret, the capital of cabbage commerce, only for 30Ksh, making a profit of over 50 000Ksh per trip on cabbage only. We would discuss the fuel costs, frequency of cargo shipments and the fluctuations of the cabbage prices. It was fascinating.

I would see the business in action as we stopped in the tiny nomadic villages of the famously fierce Toposa people and my cabbage cicerone would negotiate prices – ever increasing as we approached Kakuma. Conversely, the price of charcoal, the tall sacks of which line the road in most villages, would drop with the diminishing distance but my mercantile mentor was adamant it would be foolish to buy it en route while the real charcoal Eldorado waited in Kakuma.

We passed camel and goat shepherds who would eye us suspiciously from the sides of the road. Toposa women would walk go God knows where to and where from along the road carrying loads of charcoal on their heads. They would stop to let us pass and sometimes they would raise their tiny water jerry-jugs in pleading gesture. They were asking for water to ease their long journeys but the lorry never stopped. We stopped briefly at the only crossroads where the C47 from Lokitaung near the Turkana lake joins the Lodwar-Loki road. This place, with three brick buildings and absolutely nothing else, exists only because tiny amounts of gold are found in the creeks nearby. The locals sieve its sands for the precious metal which then they exchange for, presumably cabbage, at the crossroads.

The landscapes would grow more interesting as we made our way North. It is a land of harsh but stunning beauty. The road winds among the scrubby, yet green acacia-like trees, which my guides described as Mrumbaini, and the ubiquitous , three-meter tall termite mounds. The land is vast and flat, timeless and primordial. After all, the Lokitipi Plain, which we were passing, is the cradle of mankind - and it is without the slightest effort that one can imagine oneself transported through time when gazing upon these limitless spaces under the ever-blue sky.

The vistas get progressively more mountainous as the road approaches the rocky ranges which flank it on both sides. The hills are superbly picturesque: with sharp, lofty pinnacles; hollow, winding gorges or inaccessible, flat table-tops. Their sides are cut with scars of dry river beds - the sites of flush floods in rainly season, now just a mocking promise of moisture in the arid air. In the distance, far away in the direction of the Ugandan boarder one can see even taller ranges, both menacing and mysteriously alluring. The remotness, serenity and vastness of this beutiful landscape is without doubt worth returning to one day.

We arrived at Kakuma in good time. Kakuma, a refuggee camp for the Sudanese affected by the civil war, is a vibrant, yet depressing place. It's very name, meaning 'nowhere' in Swahili is depressing and life in this camp was famously harsh. In its hayday the camp hosted 70,000 refugees; now thanks to the CPA substantially fewer. I was tempted to stay with my cabbage truck and observe the trade in the camp the next day. It might have made for a very interesting reportage. But as it was Sunday and the next day was Kenyan holiday I would have had to wait two days without a guarantee the camp commander will grant me access when he gets back on Tuesday. So I bid my cabbage companions farewell and good luck and went to get a transport further on to Lokkichoggio, the last Kenyan town on the Sudan boarder.

It took nine hours to cover the 200kms from Lodwar to Loki and I was tired after a comfortable, yet lengthy journey. We approached the ‘suburbs’ of Loki as the last rays of sun disappeared on the horizon. Once again I found myself in an unknown town, tired, alone and after dark. But once again I was lucky – one of my fellow passengers was a softly spoken Methodist missionary. He offered my lodgings free of charge in their teaching compound, now abandoned for holidays. I accepted graciously and found myself in what certainly must have been the cleanest and most comfortable abode in the whole of Loki. Not only I had a huge room with en-suite warm shower at my disposal, not only was I treated to delicious meal in the company of talkative Sudanese Dinka missionaries, but joy of joys of the modern man, I had internet access in my room throughout the night.

I was clean, safe and finally, after a week of craziest adventures of my life, on the boarder with Sudan, which I was about to enter the next day.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Rendille Wedding Photos

Rendille Women

I am still working on a post about the fascinating and colourful Rendille wedding I attended in December near Marsabit in North Kenya but while you wait, I encourage you to have a look at some photos from the ceremony and celebrations here.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Various, Curious and Spurious – Sex and Food

In this series of posts I have decided to bundle together some of the random flavours of Uganda. This practice will be entirely at odds with the modern socio-anthropological practice, which abhors pointing fingers at other cultures’ curios and idiosyncrasies and prefers to look at them as comprehensive, self-explanatory systems, where nothing is ‘weird’, just yet not understood. Good for them. I will nevertheless revert to pre-Bronislaw Malinowski techniques of those good old fashioned nineteenth century armchair anthropologists who found utmost pleasure in trying to make sense of the quirkier, more colourful and unusual aspects of ‘exotic cultures’. With all due respect, that just makes for a better read than Levi-Strauss.

This is a rather eclectic combination of facts, images and impressions that have surprised, intrigued or amused me during my travels. While some of them are peculiar to Uganda, others I have observed Africa-wide and others are just non-European. But they all make Uganda a colourful, fascinating and perplexing place.


The Saturday editions of the two main newspapers, the government New Vision and the independent Daily Monitor, have a rather sizeable agony aunt and matchmaking inserts. These make for a fascinating read.

Firstly, white is still in demand. For example, in the recent issue out of 23 ladies 11 were searching for a white man, out of which two requested that he be wealthy too. The guys were less fussy, only 6 out of 40 wanted a ‘beautiful white lady for love’. Secondly, most of the posts contain a note that HIV test is a must. Not so surprising when one considers, that despite commendable government and NGO efforts (on the Kenyan-Ugandan boarder there is a free condom-dispenser, although I do wonder why there) still over 6.5% of Ugandans are thought to be HIV positive. This also explains, why there are three categories of match-adds ‘man seeks woman’, ‘woman seeks man’ and ‘HIV positive’. ‘Man seeks man’ does not feature but that should not surprise you if you recall that Uganda made headlines worldwide with its attitude to homosexuals not that long ago. Lastly, the adds also often contain tribal affiliation requirement, for example Acholi, Langi or Mukiga; more often so than religious, although adjective ‘God-fearing’ is used in many.

This is a subject meriting its separate entry but it is worth noting that Uganda (and Kenya) has a striking number of single mothers. This problem has been raised by many women with whom I have spoken and their explanation is usually poverty and the fact there are more women than man out there. If there is a husband, the families are usually large (the record so far was a man who claimed to have 24 kids with 3 wives, second came a policeman with 12 kids with one wife) but I have also spoken to many girls of my age struggling to make-do while also caring for one or two love-children. Ugandan law provides for them in theory but in practice tracking a run-away dad is next to impossible, in particular if he has enough money to pay bribes. As in many developing societies, boys are still preferred to girls, the explanation given being that the girl leaves the household (i.e. supports her husbands parents in their old age) and usually brings a lesser return on educational investment (women earn less, especially if they have children). Sadly, many women seem to be convinced that, given the large number of NGOs dealing with orphans, their children would be better off without any parents.

Bus Rides and Hawkers

I love riding buses and matatus, despite their smelliness, hard seats, crowds and long waiting times, for two reasons: the views and bus-stop hawkers. Not much to be said about the views in general (they are pretty) but the hawkers are fascinating. Whenever a vehicle pulls up en route to let people off or on, its sides get flooded with a throng of sellers trying to reach its windows and offer their wares to the passengers sitting within. They mostly sell food, although other articles, like watches, belts, perfume and live chicken also feature. The nicest thing about them is that the hawkers are not aggressive or persistent in the slightest, a polite ‘no, thank you’, or even a smile and headshake is enough to make them turn their attention elsewhere. Given the fierce competition between them (there are usually many people selling the same thing) this is rather surprising. It makes me wonder if the profits, at least in some villages, are not shared somehow or if there is not a rotation system in place.

In any case, travelling on an African bus is like being in a moving restaurant. You don’t have to move from your seat to be able to enjoy refreshments and local tastes. You can start the journey by stocking on biscuits, water and chewing gum, which local boys carry on their shoulders in cardboard boxes. The drinks are usually nice and cold but you should always check if the seal is unbroken. As you stuff yourself with cookies, you might want something more watery – that’s when you could reach out for fruit which is sold either as fruit salad on trays (watermelon, papaya, avocado, durian and carrots (don’t ask me why carrots)) or separately (good luck fitting a durian through those little windows). After a couple of hours its time for something more substantial: there are chucks of meat on a stick (goat, beef, liver (yuck!) and chicken), roast sweet-corn (my favourite), roast bananas (one of the basic staples), chapattis (pancakes) or roasted cassava. Should you feel that has not been sufficient, you can always fill up on deep-fried locusts, peanuts and pumpkin seeds, or popcorn. There are also muffins, banana doughnuts (yummy) or mandazis for dessert.

Stuffing yourself too much however might not be advisable as there are usually no toilet breaks and if there are the bus just stops on the side of the road and both men and women squirt in the plain view (you are lucky if there are bushes). Instead, you can always buy that live chicken (usually three in a bunch tied by their legs) for later.