First Impressions – Day 60

Posted on May 6, 2012


The road to Biiso is remarkably smooth. You notice when your teeth are no longer chattering driving along a Ugandan road. The potholes have been filled and the road flattened – it’s one of the main routes used by large oil trucks heading to Lake Albert. Our white pick-up truck cruised along speedily with Zephyr at the helm. We passed an area of the Budongo Forest I had never seen before – Block B. Zephyr told me it used to be an ecotourism site but that the project was forced to fold after they found that the chimps were experiencing too much stress from groups of visitors. These particular chimps are not habituated either. The forest has become fragmented from excessive logging and the chimps are now partial to crop raiding in the villages for food. Habituating these apes further would simply exacerbate the human/wildlife conflict issue.

Biiso is only about 30 minutes from Budongo (with Zephyr driving) and I could have quite easily have stayed in camp for the next month, but I don’t have a car, fuel is expensive (almost a pound a litre) and you tend to gain more trust and respect from the local community if you try to live among  them.

The town is very small, about half the size of a London high street. Spit and you could actual hit the end of the road. The first things you notice as you drive into it are the large numbers of ugly-looking white satellite dishes dotted on along the roadside. I shouldn’t complain because the mobile signal is brilliant, five full bars, despite the eyesore. I’m staying at the very modest Albert Nile B&B. The outside is painted like the colours of a sunset so you can’t really miss it.

As we pulled into the gravelled and bumpy driveway we were greeted by a gaggle of very jolly young women – Jasinta, Christine, Lucy and Joslyn. They will be my sole source of company as the place looks pretty empty.

“Asha, do you eat local food?” asked Christine excitedly.

“Of course, no problem” I said.

They giggled in unison and smiled, probably delighted to have a laid back guest.

I’ve had so many emails and messages from family and loved-ones saying they are relieved to hear I decided to change my location for the next leg. Thank you all for your well wishes. I’m glad too, Camp Guan-tanna- mo was only missing the orange jumpsuit given all the other conditions!

My room at The Albert is small, but it is clean. There’s a desk, a bed with a mossie net and a lamp for literally burning the midnight oil (Isaac!!). There is no power in the town so at night some businesses use a generator. Thankfully the B&B fires up at 7pm for a few hours, so at least I’ll be able to work and charge my array of batteries. There’s an outside pit latrine and bathroom. Washing is with a Jerry can filled with hot water – back to basics after the luxuries of the forest – the irony!

After checking out my digs I went to meet my driver for the next three weeks. Five minutes away Musindi lay sprawled out on his bed, his left ankle bandaged up.

“Should I be worried?” I whispered to Zephyr as we were ushered into the door by his petite and very pregnant wife.

“Asha nooooo. The accident was not his fault. Someone drove into him. He can’t drive now anyway, so his friend is going to pick you and use his bike.” Zephyr explained.

Mukaali turned to me and grinned. He is a gregarious character and I think we’ll get on famously.

“I’m going to bring you a bag of mangoes on Tuesday,” he promised me as he walked us back to the car.

“That would be wonderful Mukaali, thank you, see you next week.”

We left Biiso and headed down the steep escarpment to the fishing village of Piida. It’s where I will be carrying out most of my interviews for the next three weeks. The road twists and turns all the way down the hillside and it’s littered with large rocks and loose stones. The view is magnificent an emerald-green blanket covers the hillside and ahead lies the outline of Democratic Republic of Congo across the lake.

As the road flattened out the landscape changed. Either side of the road are swampy riverbeds. The local people here drink this water, some wash in it and others even use it as a latrine. The hygiene is not great, and there is cholera in the area. If I can survive the jungle I’m dam well gonna make sure I survive the village. I intend to be extremely careful everyday always bringing bottled water with me, washing my hands before eating and using antibacterial gel as often as possible without looking rude.

My new field assistant, while no Moses Lemi seems a nice enough chap. He’s a local politician and it’s obvious he is the big fish in this very small pond (excuse the pun). He’s the smartest dressed man in the village and knows everyone. I reckon he’s about early to mid-40’s, but it is so difficult to gauge a Ugandan’s age, they all look incredible youthful. Ashuman sports a shaved head and is tall, broad and stocky. I’ve told him my study is about strictly all things to do with fishing. I’m not sure how much I can trust him, because he may or may not know illegal pit-sawyers in the village. He speaks several dialects so he is the ideal translator for me in this area. Somehow I will have to glean information from people about my tree species without mentioning the C-word!

Ashuman’s first task will be to find me three types of fishermen for our first morning. A retired man who can talk about the good old days and how plentiful the lakes were; how they fished and the boats they used and how many boats were operational then etc. Then he has to find me a middle-aged man in his mid-40’s to 50’s who has seen the fishing industry change in the last two decades and finally a young man in his 20’s or 30’s who can talk about how he makes ends meet and whether he sees a future in fishing. It would be brilliant if we got a father and son case study.

I going to aim to try to do at least 3 or 4 interviews a day, each one will probably last an hour. There are so many aspects to the bigger picture it’s unbelievable.

Happy with my provisional plans, Zephyr dropped me in Masindi to catch a mattatu back to Kampala. I’m fed up with the Link Bus. It’s far too slow and it takes an age to fill up – you can wait over an hour sometimes. I am a woman who is all about speed. The driver certainly delivered, so much so a traffic cop pulled us over and verbally berated the man in-front of all 14 passengers. But as soon as we had pulled off and were out of sight, it was foot to the pedal again. Surely the cops realise anyone travelling in these rickety taxis do it because they want to get from A to B quickly?!

The smog and dust from Kampala seeped in through the open windows as we pulled into the new taxi park: off one death-trap and onto another. By the time I boarded the second taxi to take me to Red Chilli in Bugolobi it was gone 6 o’clock.

“I should be at the hostel is no time,” I said smugly to myself.  Sods Law, 10 minutes later I was stuck in the mother of all traffic jams. The boda-boda guys began mounting the pavements and were quizzing past all the standstill traffic on either side of sidewalks. Pedestrians darted out of the way cursing them. Ten minutes turned to twenty….. then to thirty….the other passengers started to get irritable.

“Driver…..DRIVER!!” Yelled one old lady behind me, “Use the other lane. Can’t you see the cars are moving and we’re not?!”

All traffic was crawling at a snail’s pace and it made no difference whatsoever which lane you were in. It got to a point where all the mattatus stuck in the traffic turned off their engines to conserve fuel. Any sign of movement and all the drivers forced their engines to fire up quickly, spluttering and choking in the process. This shambolic sight all took place outside the Serena Hotel – Kampala’s most prestigious hotel.

After almost 40-minutes people started reaching for their mobile phones desperate to reach those they’d stood-up. The huffing and the puffing were punctuated by a familiar but misplaced sound. I strained to look towards the front of the taxi. At first I thought my eyes were deceiving me, but sure enough a man with a large green plastic bag sat on this lap had something I was not expecting to see – the head of a live chicken sticking out. It began twitching back and forth and side to side, wrestling to get out of the plastic bag while clucking. The clucking then turned to squawking as the heat inside the taxi began to rise which triggered screaming from a baby in front of me followed by more shouting from the old lady in the backseat.

“Soak it up Asha, T.I.A.(This Is Africa) ” I told myself. I remained remarkably calm. A 30 minute taxi journey took nearly three hours. It was nine o’clock by the time I checked in. Bushed I hit the sack, ready to tackle the city and its chaos the next morning.