This morning two of the staff from the B&B – Lucy and Maria – and myself took a matatu to Hoima. It’s a town about 40km from Biiso and it’s bigger than Masindi but not as bustling. The road there is very bad and the journey is painful. The taxi stops at every village en route which means it takes just over two hours to get there. I think I have now sat in every possible seat designed for these vehicles. Today I was pushed to the front, sandwiched between the driver and a father cradling his baby son. I couldn’t help looking at the dials on the dashboard and a part of me wished I hadn’t. Not one of them was working!! The fuel gauge read empty. The needle for the water pressure was missing and the speedometer did not move past zero. “Ignore it, ignore it, as long as it gets you to Hoima in one piece Asha, why worry about it, “I consoled myself.
As the taxi groaned into the bus park, we jumped out and fixed a time to meet up later. The girls went off to do their shopping and I set off to meet Paul.
Paul is someone I briefly worked with two years ago through the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust (CSWCT) which runs Ngamba Island. I last saw him in Hoima when he took me to see the conservation work the organisation was doing with school children in the district. We’d agreed to meet at a hotel in town at 2pm.
It was fantastic to see him and after a huge hug and a catch up over coffee in the garden, I began to tell him about my thesis and what I had discovered both in Budongo as well as in Piida. He listened attentively.
“I want to visit this timber yard in Kiryatete, will you come with me please?” I said pulling out a piece of paper from my pocket and carefully unfolding it onto the table.
He tilted his head to side and looked at it closely “Uh-huh yes I know where that is,” he said.
“Great I don’t want to go on my own and I want to pretend that I’m buying wood to make furniture.
“My source in Piida claims I can get hold of Cordia there without any problems and apparently it is officially stamped, I wanna see if that’s the case,” I added.
“Sure,” he said.
We jumped into his 4X4 and headed off to grab a bite to eat at a local restaurant first and to meet up with Philip.
Philip is a charismatic, bright young man with a forestry degree from Makerere University and is one of the few people I know who can challenge me when it comes to talking. The first time we met we got on like a house on fire. We were debating Ugandan politics over dinner in a rundown curry house sipping on Masala chai. I’ve not spoken or emailed him for almost two years but as soon as he saw me he broke into a huge smile and opened his arms to embrace me.
“I can’t believe you are here,” he said excitedly.
“I know who’d have thought! Look at you,” I said giving him the once over. He’s matured in the face but still has that cheeky-look.
He’s been following my blog closely and has been busy getting stuck into his new role in Hoima.
I filled Philip in on the state of play over a meal of fried chicken, cassava and beans. He was definitely up for coming with us and of course volunteered to do the talking. He is a very smooth operator and I was delighted to be in such capable hands.
THE TIMBER SELLER:
The timber yard is off one of the main roads. It’s the sort of place you don’t find many women unless they are carrying wood on their heads and certainly not a Muzungu. En route Philip suggested my story should be that I am moving to the area and want to furnish a house I’m renting. As I got out of the car I was flanked by my two bodyguards. There are a lot of shady characters lurking in the shadows of the large timber sheds. I saw piles and piles of wood everywhere, some marked with chalk others with marker pens, and a few engraved (those are the officially stamped planks). I decided it was not a good idea to pull out my camera. This time I would just be observing.
Philip whispered for me to let him do the talking and to stay close, I nodded obediently.
A man in a bright yellow shirt unbuttoned to his navel approached us. His baseball cap cocked to one side. He eyes were bloodshot. He looked at me intensely before speaking to Philip in the Lugandan. Then he beckoned for us to look at the wood in one of the sheds.
“Good wood – mahogany,” he said in his broken English and tapping a pile.
“Mahogany is expensive, I can’t afford that. My friend has a table made of good wood, what’s it called Philip……hmmmm….ah yes Cordia, she says it’s very good for outdoor furniture, and it’s light. Mahogany is too heavy.”
“No more Cordia” he barked.
“Oh why?” I asked.
“Finished,” he said turning to Philip and continuing in Lugandan.
They turned on their heels and I quickly followed. We crossed the road and turned down another road behind the main strip where there were yet more stocks of timber in another yard. Some workers were on a break and were sat around smoking cigarettes in the sun.
He and Philip continued to chat, then Philip said: “This is Munywamaizi (latin name: Mirtagyna stipulosa), it has the same properties as Cordia and water-resistant. It’s also the same price 30,000 Shillings a plank.
“Nah, if I am going to pay 30,000 then I want the real deal, not an alternative,” I said getting into the role play.
By this time a large suspicious looking woman had joined our timber seller and was hovering. “What do you want it for?” she said putting her hand on her hip and resting against the shed door.
“She is making a small dining table and some chairs,” said Philip thinking on his feet.
“It’s for outdoors – a friend has a set made of a nice wood and I want the same one she has,” I added.
“We have a carpenter, let me bring him,” said the woman getting pushy.
“No, no it’s ok,” said Philip in a soothing voice. “She has her own carpenter already, we’ll bring him next week and we can talk about the size with him and how many planks she needs,” he added.
“What’s that over there,” I asked nodding to a pile that had been engraved. Sadly it wasn’t Cordia but it was wood marked officially by the District Forestry Services (DFS). It was Muvule (Latin name: Milicia excelsa) mahogany that has been heavily exploited over the last 60 years.
Philip said something else to the man shook his hand and we headed to the car. Once back on the main road I turned to look at Philip in the back seat: “Right tell me everything.”
It turns out there was a large stock of Cordia last week but it was sold. The man is not sure when the next load is coming in, but there will be another shipment. I asked Philip whether he’d be willing to go back and play detective for me and he has agreed. He is going to take his cousin, who is a carpenter to keep up the charade. I’m not going back to Hoima, it’s not worth the risk and as The Northerner will say to me, it only takes someone to join up the dots and put you in the picture. Philip is safe because he’s not known in Biiso or indeed Piida.
“Does your phone take photos?” I asked.
“Ok good, you tell the man I have had to go to Masindi for business when you next go back and I want you to send me a picture of the wood before I decide I want to buy it. Try to see if it is officially marked and photograph the stamp if it is. If it’s not stamped just photograph the pile as best you can.”
“Of course!” said Philip delighted to be given an undercover assignment.
THE TREE PLANTERS:
In the meantime I have learnt some very positive news from Paul today. The CSWCT is involved in re-planting indigenous trees on privately owned land as part of its manifesto to regenerate fragmented areas of forest. One of the species they are planting is Cordia millenii. They have been given a grant to be able to buy seeds and they have given 6,000 Cordia seeds to landowners who are then paid 70,000 Shillings per hectare to maintain and care for the trees each year. The seeds are germinated in pots first and once they sprout roots, the seedlings are planted. The first batch was planted last September and they appear to be growing well. This is fantastic news and could be a way forward. Paul is giving a talk at a conference about this in Kampala in a few weeks’ time and he’s invited me to attend. If I continue to gather data in Biiso at the same rate as I did last week then I may head back to the capital early and tie up all my loose ends.
Tomorrow I’m hoping to meet a pit-sawyer. Ashuman is coming up to town from Piida. Did I tell you he has two wives? I know who in their right mind would want to have two wives? It’s twice the trouble and the expense especially in Uganda. Anyway wife number one lives in Biiso so he’s gonna see her and work with me. He told me on the phone that he may have just the man for me.