"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,

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Easy Rider - Part I

Fun as chasing the President was it was now time to focus on the Opposition. I arrived back in Kampala and headed straight to the office of the invaluable Kizito Serumaga, my local source of inspiration and information. A quick look into the campaign calendar revealed that it would be most productive for me to head east, towards Mbale, as there I would have a chance to catch up with one of, or all, the three presidential candidates campaigning in the area: Mr. Jaberi Bidandi Ssali in Mbale, Mr. Kiza Besigye near and Ms. Betti Kamya in Lira.

There was no point in hanging around in Kampala so I set off the very same day. The sun was already below the horizon as we reached Mbale but its last rays gave enough light to allow me to make out the mysterious and imposing shape of Mt. Elgon (14,000 ft.) towering over the town in a blue haze. I was very pleasantly surprised with Mbale, which I had expected to be a slightly bigger version of the chaotic and ramshackle Gulu. Instead, I found wide paved streets sensibly laid out and flanked by a number of old houses with highly intricate tympana over the now run down porches. They gave a place a somewhat timeless colonial feel and it was easy to imagine how fine the place must have looked like those 60 years ago when those houses – according to decorative cartouche frames still visible on some of them – were first erected. Rows of shade-giving trees, uncharacteristically for Ugandan cities dividing the main avenues into two separate lanes, only added to the charm and appeal of the place.

I checked into the hotel recommended by Lonely Planet and made a few phone calls. I could not get through to anyone from Bidandi Ssali’s press crew (who were supposed to be in town preparing for the next day’s rally) but managed to arrange an interview with Beti Kamya for the next day in Lira. It was already pitch dark but I decided to go to the market and get some lovely smelling food from the stalls I was passing on my way into town. In the evening, the sides of the streets near the main roundabout change into a lively, seemingly interminable kitchen of dozens of stalls selling fried meats of all kinds, chapattis (pancakes), chips and other unnamed delicacies. I got my chicken and fries and looked for a place to sit and eat. Despite the late hour the streets were abuzz with activity and there was not as much as a meter of a curb free from hawkers or passer-bys. My chicken was getting colder and I was getting increasingly hungrier, so when a group of local men beckoned me to sit by their table outside a run down building that must have been a bar, I did not hesitate much. As I describe here (no. 27), they were quite drunk but most welcoming, generous and talkative.

The next morning was spent in an entirely unproductive attempt to contact the Bandini-Ssali’s entourage. I talked to people on the streets and bothered the very helpful but entirely ineffectual local police (a colourful experience allowing me to witness a stream of petitioners coming to give account of their woes and grievances to the patient, yet disinterested policemen). I even managed to hunt down a local journalist who was enjoying his no doubt well-earned Sunday beer and drag him back to his office so that he can give me some numbers to ring. All in vain, and I was faced with a dilemma if I should stay for the evening rally or proceed to Lira for the arranged interview. Having no guarantee that I would be able to meet Bidandi Ssali in the evening, and wanting to meet the only female presidential candidate, I chose the latter option.

As it was still early, no later than lunchtime, I had more than enough time to catch a matatu to Lira (300km) or at least one to Soroti (140km). I had already checked out of my hotel but left the luggage in the storage room; all that was left to do was to pick it up and go to matatu stop. But that smooth plan of mine did not take into account one important factor.

My luggage was missing! I returned to the hotel only to find that my rucksack was taken from the storage room. By the Swiss! That was unheard of: I drag the bloody thing untouched through slums and wilderness of Africa only to loose it to the Swiss! Naturally, I did not suspect them of malicious intentions. I met this group of innocent students in the morning and they told me they were waiting for a transport to take them to Mt Elgon for a week long hike. They must have put my bag onto their van by accident as our rucksacks were stored next to each other in the store-room. But the lack of evil design did not change the fact my bag was gone, either for good or for at least a week!

The situation was dire but not hopeless. I carry all my valuable belongings, like passport, credit cards, cameras and laptop with me at all times, so at least these I still had. But there is no denying that chargers, clothes, tent and toiletries also can come in handy and now I knew I had to do without them for God knows how long.

I was faced with a serious dilemma: to stay or follow the Swiss looking for my luggage, or to proceed to Lira for my interview luggage-less. With a heavy heart at the thought of never seeing my little fluffy toy racoon again, I chose the latter option. I charged Alex, the underage manager of the hotel, to find my luggage before my return in a few days, fully expecting never to recover my lost property.

My delay further complicated matters, as there were no more direct matatus to Lira when I finally got to the station. Undaunted, I took the matatu to Soroti. It took ages to fill up and when it did it was so full I could hardly breathe. Given the string of failures that day, I was not entirely surprised when our overcrowded matatu got an incapacitating puncture a couple of miles outside Soroti. We were told to get out and walk to town.

It’s funny how human mind works. This yet another obstacle should have probably driven me round the bend but I was not least affected by it. I knew I should be angry, disappointed, resigned and anxious but I was as if outside my emotional system. It was as if it was only natural that things go wrong that day and the only thing I can do is to ignore it all and carry on. I needed no special strength of will or stamina to push forward – my mind just knew that if it pauses to reflect and listen to my feelings we will be doomed to despair. So it just switched off so that I could calmly get on with getting to my destination.

I walked for half an hour to the town ‘centre’ only to find out that there are no more matatus to Lira that day. Moreover, as it was already getting dark, it was also not likely that there would be any private transport going. Everyone I asked advised me to stay the night and try the next day. There would be plenty of options to get to Lira the next day. But that was just not good enough; I just started walking towards the Lira-end of town to hitch-hike. I was desperate.

As a matter of fact, I was so desperate that I did not hesitate when a car carrying four young local guys pulled up and offered me a lift, as well as a bottle of vodka. They were off to a party but in such a jolly mood that, upon hearing of my predicament, decided to drive me to Lira and then go back to their party. I was apprehensive but had no choice. Unfortunately, or maybe quite the opposite, after a few minutes drive and a series of phone calls, they changed their minds but offered to take me to Lira after the party in a few hours time. That was not an option for me, but as I felt we have already become friends I asked them if they could not help to organise me a motorbike.

They were much perplexed by my request but agreed. We stopped at the edge of town and they started making phone calls. There was much negotiating, quizzing and haggling but after a while another guy arrived on a motorbike which I was to get in lease – and that does not cease to amaze me still – only on the promise of paying them 50.000 Ugandan shillings upon return the next day. It must have been the shock of seeing a white girl wanting to drive the motorbike, which she confessed she has little experience of operating, herself into the night on an unknown road over 130kms that deprived them of their usual shrewd negotiating skills.

It took a little while for them to teach me how to operate the kick-start ignition (I was used to just pressing the button on my motorbike) and in the process I scalded my calf badly. But in the end I managed to get the motor running and, slightly wobbly and uncertainly, I rolled back into town to get some petrol. The poor motorbike owner watched my disappearance with a horrified gaze.

Unsurprisingly, I caused a stir at the petrol station. More so that I was absolutely unable to either open the tank to fuel up, close it afterwards or get that blasted motor running again. Speechless at hearing where I want to go, the station boys did all those things for me and I drove off purposefully and confidently into the night, yet with a growing suspicion in my heart that this adventure might not end well after all.


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