Friday, December 16, 2011

The Road to Buganda

Tell the King that I am about to die for his people,
 that I have bought the road to Buganda with my life.” 
- Bishop Hannington, on hearing of his impending execution

Dark clouds had begun to gather above the towering escarpment, blotting out the fading light and bringing the day to an abrupt end. It was a grave portent, if ever there was one, not to continue up that road.
“Best we tackle the Mau Escarpment now, in the twilight boss,” said Sam my driver, as he geared down for the vertiginous gradient ahead, “to keep the engine cool.” Sam and I were on the Mombasa-Kampala Highway, driving north-west in the direction of the Ugandan border. “There’ll be some night driving,” he continued, “but we should reach Eldoret by 8 o’clock.”
Ever the optimist, I replied, “OK.” I was gladdened by the weather. Northern Kenya had been experiencing very dry conditions, and this was the first rain in over a month. It was undoubtedly a welcome relief to local farmers.
Initially, we had intended to stay at Lake Nakuru in the Rift Valley but, after circumnavigating the town’s main roundabout - a journey which took the best part of 30 minutes while the drivers of two matatus, parked side by side in the middle of heavy traffic, argued - we had decided to push on up over the escarpment. Our main concern now was the vehicle.
We had spent the previous night in Nairobi. In the morning, while I fumed about the cowboy who’d rented us the Land Cruiser, Sam tried unsuccessfully to mend its air filter, which caused the engine to overheat. Having been unable to leave until the afternoon, we now had no hope of covering the 660 kilometers between Nairobi and Kampala that day, and were simply trying to put as much distance behind us as possible before it got too dark.
Though the car's engine temperature remained manageable, the higher we climbed the escarpment, the more menacing the tempest outside grew. In no time we were being pummeled by a torrential downpour, cascading from the 3000-meter-high slopes of Mt Londiani like broad sheets of mabati roofing. It was only then we discovered the Land Cruiser’s windshield wipers and headlamps were also defective. Before long we were driving blind. 
In darkness, and with a veritable waterfall pouring over the windscreen obscuring the winding road ahead, it was impossible to continue. Sam tried tailgating a passing truck; its abundance of reflective panels would serve to guide us through the gloom. But the truck moved away too quickly, and we were unable to keep up. 
“Let’s pull over,” said Sam anxiously, “and wait for the rain to stop.”
“It doesn’t look like that will happen any time soon, rafiki,” I replied. “And I don’t fancy spending the night in the car, on the edge of a mountain road. But we have no choice, we must pull over..." 
As we sat there in the downpour, I began to reflect on the road beside which we were now precariously parked, the Mackinnon-Slater Road. Why had it been built in the first place? The quick answer is, to connect the Swahili Coast to Uganda, where told there was a great a kingdom at the source of the River Nile. 
I began to research the subject and discovered that in a few short years after this route was opened up, it had become the main road into the heart of Africa. Described in detail by its pioneers, and I have collected and woven together relevant quotes from a number of accounts of the journey, from between 1894 and 1912, in order to give you, the reader, a sense of what it was like for those early travelers who opened up the Road to Buganda.

Source of the Nile
King M'tesa of Buganda
The source of the Nile had been an inspiration to many for centuries, and the object of much curiosity since Speke discovered it's exact whereabouts in 1862. The Baganda, who lived in its headwaters, having been described variously as “the nicest [people] in all Africa… always happy and smiling,” “incurious before a stranger,” and who had “developed something like organized government,” were of great interest to Europeans. 
The explorer Henry Morton Stanley described M’tesa, the King of Buganda, as “an intelligent and distinguished princewho if aided in time by virtuous philanthropists, will do more for Central Africa than fifty years of Gospel teaching, unaided by such authority, can do.” 
In 1875, Stanley published his now famous multiple-column letter in the Daily Telegraph, which proclaimed many great things about Uganda, but most importantly called on missionaries to come and convert the ‘Waganda’: “Now, where is there in all the pagan world a more promising field for a Mission than Uganda?...Here, gentlemen is your opportunity: embrace it! The people on the shores of the Nyanza call upon you.” 

During that time Uganda was to become the clarion call for all those wishing to bring to Africa what its first true explorer David Livingstone coined the ‘Three C’s’: Christianity, Civilization and Commerce. To begin with, little was known of the great kingdom Speke spoke of on the western shore of the vast inland lake that he had named ‘Victoria’, after his own monarch. The problem no one was quite sure how to get to it.  
 J.D. Mullins, in The Wonderful Story of Uganda (1908), explains the remoteness of the place: “African travel was still a great undertaking, whose conditions were known to very few; Uganda lay at the distance of at least seven hundred miles from the nearest missionary base; the temper of the chiefs whose territory must be traversed was unknown; communications were uncertain, the climate dangerous. Altogether there is no part of the world which could now afford such a 'leap in the dark' to missionary enterprise as did Uganda thirty years ago.

The Northern Route
One thing European travelers to Uganda all had in common for the first two decades of journeying to Buganda was the road they took into the country. The old slave-trading route from the Swahili Coast to the interior started in Zanzibar, passed through Tabora, and then followed the southern shores of Lake Victoria to approach the Kingdom from the south. It had long been used by explores and missionaries, but in 1885 James Hannington, the bishop of East Equatorial Africa, on his first trip to Uganda, opted to try an as-yet-untravelled ‘northern route,’ which roughly followed the same course as the present-day Mackinnon-Slater road, connecting Mombasa with Kampala. 

Hannington saw many advantages to travelling this way: the new route was north of the boundary between German and British East Africa, linked his existing mission stations, and was shorter and seemingly healthier for the traveller. He was gravely unaware of the disadvantages. He did not receive the letter sent by Alexander Mackay, the Church Missionary Society’s chief representative in Uganda, insisting he wait to be collected by boat from Kisumu. King Mwenga, M’tesa erratic son and heir, suspected the bishop was coming to ‘eat the country,’ and, as the first person to use this ‘back door’ into the Buganda Kingdom, he had Hannington speared to death in Busoga for his impertinence. Thus, the bishop became the first of many martyrs in the cause of bringing Christianity to Uganda, while opening the present route from the coast.
The travails that followed Hanington’s execution, most notably those of Mackay and Captain Frederick Lugard DSO, the Resident and chief representative of the Imperial British East Africa Company in Buganda, have been well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say, their tireless efforts to provide an “antidote of imperialism to the malaises of savagery, paganism and the slave trade,” paid off when in November 1892, just three short decades after Speke’s discovery, the Union Jack was raised in Uganda, and Britain proclaimed a formal protectorate over the region. 
As the protectorate's first governor, Sir Gerald Portal made his inaugural visit that same year. In his book The British Mission to Uganda in 1893, he describes the scene as the human caravan left the coast for Uganda. 
The long line of white-clad and black-skinned porters, bearing on their heads loads of every colour, size, and shape, slowly winds in a single file along the narrow path like a brilliant and gigantic serpent, now almost dazzling to look upon under the rays of the morning sun, now gliding in dark and mysterious silence through the cool shade of a wooded valley.

J.D. Mullins adds, “Sometimes a thousand men, gathered together from Zanzibar, Mombasa, and the coast strip, would boisterously start off on a thousand-mile tramp, from which many of them never returned.” 
He paints a grim picture of the challenges they faced as they marched farther into the interior: “Heat like that of a furnace; yet a damp heat, producing physical exhaustion and mental depression...insects that fly, insects that crawl, insects that bite, insects infesting everything...centipedes, snakes, and beasts of prey...such thirst as no dweller in temperate climates can imagine; fever and other tropical diseases, recurring again and again.
Zanzibar was eventually replaced by Mombasa as the preferred starting point, and upon arrival by steamer from Europe many found the coastal port “remarkably pretty.” C.W. Hattersley, in Uganda by Pen and Camera (1907), marvels at its “white houses of the Government officers, and traders, contrasting with the vivid green of the foliage, and the blue sky and sea,” and the way they “all combine to produce a very pleasing effect, as the sun is shining brightly almost every day in the year.” 
Ultimately, every traveller expressed relief at having left the balmy coast and entered the ‘Big Game Country’ beyond, a feeling well conveyed by Portal’s account. “As we walked along that morning over rich pastures and rolling downs, breathing mountain air exhilarating as that of the Scottish Highlands in August, the flagging spirits of the men, somewhat sulky at having been defrauded of their promised rest, rose at every step, until great herds of antelope were seen galloping away as the echoes were roused by some ringing - and usually obscene - Swahili chorus.
Wildlife was much more abundant in those days, and sighting a rhino was a common occurrence, as C.W. Hattersly describes, in A Boy's Life in Uganda (1900): “One morning I was in the rear of the caravan, and was rather timid, as I had no gun, for there, only 500 yards away, was an enormous rhino with its calf. Providentially we were down wind, and the rhino cannot see far. Its brain is not highly developed, and it only goes for what it sees. We took good care to to attract its attention, and he did not even look up. If he had been disturbed, we should have needed long legs. He can run at a marvellous speed in spite of his unwieldy body. He charges anything and everything.
Back then the journey from Mombasa to Nairobi took no less than one month, and was fraught with attacks by lions and native warriors. When Portal first passed through ‘Kikuyu Land’ in 1893, the settlement we know today as Nairobi was a highly-barricaded fortress called Fort Smith, with only a handful of white settlers living there. 
One European marched in front, one in the rear, and one in the middle of the long line. The Wa-Kikuyu, as we knew, seldom or never show themselves, or run the risk of a fight in the open, but lie like snakes in long grass, or in some dense bush within a few yards of the line of march, watching for a gap in the ranks, or for some incautious porter to stray away or loiter a few yards behind; even then not a sound is heard; a scarcely perceptible 'twang' of a small bow, the almost inaudible 'whizz' of a little arrow for a dozen yards through the air, a slight puncture in the arm, throat, or chest, followed, almost inevitably, by the death of a man.” 
By the time Captain E.G. Dion Lardner arrived in Nairobi by train two decades later, the place had been completely transformed. “There are some 5,000 whites in the place, but most of them are non-residential. The entire population is about 20,000. The shops are well stocked, and there are few things you cannot purchase...The town is improving daily, and stone buildings are rapidly supplanting the original wooden shanties and tin erections. ...Nairobi has a great future as any rising city in the world.”
Although Nairobi served as an important supply stop, most travellers were eager to march on to Uganda, and soon they were traversing the Rift Valley, passing lakes Naivasha, Elementia and Nakuru. This had once been one of the most treacherous legs of the journey, where Maasai moran regularly raided their human caravans, and took a heavy human toll. But by the end of the 19th Century, settlers had begun to arrive in the highlands in droves, and the Rift Valley was set aside for white farmers. 
Sir Gerald Portal paints an idyllic scene of the early days of the settlers: “As we sat that night in greatcoats round a blazing fire, we agreed that it would be impossible to feel ill in this district, and that if only communications with the coast were a little simplified, as they easily could be, no life could be more delightful than that of the first European settlers on these plains, with magnificent scenery on every side, clear streams of water, a practically unlimited extent of the richest pasture, any amount of what is now probably the best and most varied shooting in the world, and a complete immunity - at least for the present - from telegrams or 'interviews', circulars or companies, dinner-parites or duns.
However J. B. Purvis, in Through Uganda to Mount Elgon, writing fifteen years later believes that it is “quite an open question whether the white man will ever be at home in the African Highlands; that he will ever be able to build up here, under the direct rays of the Equatorial sun, a strong, contented, self-supporting, permanent, white community.” 
Hattersley is much more optimistic and shows that by the turn of the century the white man’s presence in the Valley was already quite evident. “A number of settlers are turning over the ground and planting coffee, rubber, wheat, maize, and fibre for making ropes and rough bags. It is quite surprising to see the number of white faces at the various stations we pass, and in a few years' time it looks like being a white man's country. 
Purvis on the other hand asserts that, whatever the Highlanders achieve in Kenya, “We must not forget that Uganda is not, and probably never can become, a white man's country.” Lucky for Uganda!
As they climbed out of the Rift Valley, none of our early travelers failed to remark on the obstacle posed to their journey by the wintry Mau Escarpment, where Sam and I were still stuck, waiting for some let-up in the unceasing rainfall. 
Sir Gerald Portal: “It was rather difficult to imagine ourselves almost exactly on the Equator, as we shivered that night in bed, covered with all the blankets we could muster, on the top of which were heaped coats, flannel shirts, and clothes of any sort which might help to keep in the heat, while most of us went to bed wearing two or more suits of night garments besides.”
C.W. Hattersley:  “You would sometimes find the pail of water outside your tent had a covering of ice in the morning; and careless porters who had neglected to wrap themselves up in their blankets, or who had foolishly sold their blankets to obtain beer, were sometimes frozen to death.“
J. B. Purvis: “The cold was intense, the path, bad at any time, became slippery and difficult to negotiate; the rivulets became mighty torrents, and the porters were in despair. We coaxed, we threatened, we helped with loads, and carried men; but I believe a dozen succumbed as the result of that downpour.
Eventually Sam attempted another tailgate. This time the lorry driver moved slowly enough for us to remain close behind him, and we all crept up the escarpment like a lost elephant. In time we reached the Nandi Plateau, where our journey seemed to go on blindly for hours through the rain. Just when Sam’s knuckles were beginning to look like those of a muzungu, he suddenly lit up. “Look, ahead,” he cried. Through the splashing windshield wipers we could just make out the distant lights of Eldoret, glittering on the moisture-laden horizon like submerged treasure. The rain had not yet to cease but at least now we’d be able to get out from under it.   

Victoria Nyanza
I have seen the lake, sir, and it is grand!” - Frank Pocock, during H.M. Stanley’s 1875 expedition to Lake Victoria
Behold, the shimmering shores of Victoria Nyanza (Nyanja being the original name for lake), also known as Ukerewe, meaning the Eye of the Rhino, Nalubaale, Sango, and Lolwe.  Although Ptolemy spoke of Egypt’s Nile draining from a range of snow capped mountains that he dubbed the Mountains of the Moon, situated between two vast lakes in the middle of Africa, the first recorded account of Victoria came from Arab traders plying the interior for slaves, gold, and ivory. The Al Idrisi map from the 1160s, clearly depicts Lake Victoria, which it attributes as the source of the Nile. 
Our route completely bypassed Victoria, farther north towards Mount Elgon, but early travelers had to stop in the port of Kisumu and cross into Uganda via the lake in a canoe. 
J. B. Purvis describes the scene as the boats arrived to collect him: “Around a jutting promontory comes into view a picture that might have dropped from fairy-land… A flotilla of canoes such as we have never seen before, long and graceful, coloured red with earth, and prows adorned with the horns of antelope. Each vessel is propelled by twenty paddlers or more, who, the moment they catch sight of us, put additional zest into both song and work, and send their frail-looking craft skimming towards us.” 
According to Hattersley, “The European passengers generally sat in the middle of the canoe, the floor being composed of twigs laid across to keep passengers from the water which was always in the bottom of the canoe, and on the top of the twigs a lot of loose grass was spread. A rug on the top of the grass provided a seat or couch, and a bag of bedding or a tent as a rest for the back made it quite comfortable.” 
Even the lake journey, it seemed, as Purvis points out, could be quite perilous. “Nothing will induce our paddlers to face the open sea; they know its moods too well - its sudden squalls, its terrible storms that lash its ripples into mountainous billows that would at once engulf their cockle-shells. They make for shore at the first sign of 'weather' ; and, of course, the traveller must encamp on land at night. Here he makes the acquaintance of Africa's scourge, the mosquito; and more likely than not he will receive a nocturnal visit from the hippopotamus which in the day-time is too shy to seek exercise and sweet potatoes.” 
In time canoes were replaced by steamers, just as the human caravans were replaced by the Uganda Railway. The new mode of lake transport afforded J.B. Purvis the luxury of “stepping from his carriage on to a handsomely found Government steamer......Our journey across the Lake [is] in what is more like a trim, well-kept private yacht than a trade steamer. Everything on board is spick and span; and the dusky sailor-men move about in an alert fashion that speaks well for the kindness and ability of their officers.”  
Not surprisingly, our travelers’ first glimpses of Entebbe, the seat of colonial power in Uganda, after such an arduous journey from the coast, is the subject about which they wax lyrical the most. J. B. Purvis describes his first impression: “Beautiful, perfectly beautiful! is the verdict of whoever views Entebbe, Uganda's port, from the deck of the steamer. And, if possible, more perfectly beautiful when viewed from certain vantage-points on shore.
Captain E.G. Dion Lardner had scarcely finished his breakfast, “when some one shouted out 'Entebbe.' I ran round to the starboard side, where a beautiful view met my gaze. Wonder of wonders! could this be the fever-stricken spot which I had heard so frequently and vigorously maligned?
“Splendidly situated, overlooking the great lake, it appeared in the distance as a mass of trees, parks and gardens of flowers...The first thing to attract my interest were the fine golf-links, which do great credit to the noble sportsman who laid them out.”
Hattersley goes on to describe the warm welcome awaiting him and his family. "Everybody salutes you, most of them kneeling down to do it, and on all sides you hear, 'Olanyo?' '('How are you?') 'Wasuze olya?' ('How did you sleep?') 'Kulika nyanja!'  ('Congratulations on your lake-journey.') This latter really means, 'We are glad you have crossed the lake safely.'”

Welcome to Uganda!
Our march the previous day had been, as usual, over monotonous, burnt, and barren plains, with occasional patches of cultivation round the villages; but now, without any graduation or preparation, we suddenly passed into land of fine trees, of endless banana gardens, of cool shade, and intelligent-looking, chocolate-coloured people, completely clothed from head to foot in graceful togas of bark-cloth.” So wrote Gerald Portal of his final approach to the kingdom.
After crossing the Ugandan border Sam and I stopped to celebrate at the old Malaba Hotel with ‘one, one’ (being on this occasion a refreshing Nile Special Beer each). It’s always a great feeling returning to Uganda. And while bark-cloth togas are now a thing of the past, and ‘chocolate-coloured’ a wholly anachronistic term for the 21st Century, I would thoroughly agree with Sir Gerald Portal’s 19th Century description of Uganda.
“Now, indeed, were we in a land of plenty; great bunches of sweet, ripe bananas were brought to us at every plantation, and distributed to the porters by hospitable villagers without payment being demanded or expected. To us, who had seen no green or fresh food since leaving Kikuyu, the luxury was inestimable; the only serious danger which now threatened us was that the whole caravan should so over-eat itself in the midst of this abundance as to be unable to proceed."  
Like Portal, Sam and I approached our destination from the northeast, crossing the Nile at Jinja.  Even crossing that raging river for the umpteenth time, it did not fail to inspire, and I was overcome by waves of nostalgia, recalling my visit as a child, forty five years earlier, when I first discovered this rich land at the headwaters of a great river. 
Upon his arrival, Sir Gerald also found inspiration from the source of the Nile. “At last, at 11 o'clock on the 12th of March, a muffled roar of water told us that we were approaching the frontier of Uganda, and in a few minutes a steep and rapid descent brought us to ...the very spot where the Somerset Nile leaves the lake, and, severing all connection with its parent by throwing itself madly over the Ripon Falls, sets forth alone on its 3000-mile journey to the Mediterranean Sea.” 
It was all downhill from there. All that remained of our 1,200-km journey from the coast, was our arrival in the Buganda Kingdom, the promised land.
Whereas Portal arrived “on the seventy-fifth day after leaving the deck of H.M.S. Philomel at Mombasa,” our journey, despite its hazards, had taken us just 3 days. Normally the trip is made with just a single overnight in Nairobi. We too would have been home sooner if our Land Cruiser rental hadn’t been such a lemon. Nevertheless, once again, through thick and thin, Sam Kagame had got me home safely, for which I must salute him. 
Sir Gerald too was compelled at the end of his journey to salute his porters, who without faltering nor murmuring had endured the journey “under a burning sun or through a chilling fog, over rocks and mountains, through swamps and rivers, with no certainty of anything to eat beyond a handful or two of the course black flour of mixed beans and corn which had been dealt out to him ...As it was, these half-savage Zanzibaris had performed a feat which could certainly not be equalled by even a picked battalion of beef-fed, cloth-clad Englishmen, and which would probably prove to be beyond the powers of any race of people existing in the world except the despised, crushed, and enslaved East African.” 

At long last, we’d reached our journey’s end: Kampala. Stanley was one of the first Europeans to enter what was then called Mengo, or Rubaga, which he described in Through the Dark Continent (1899) as “crowning the summit of a smooth rounded hill - a large cluster of tall conical grass huts, in the centre of which rose a spacious, lofty, barn-like structure. The large building, we were told, was the palace! the hill, Rubaga; the cluster of huts, the imperial capital!
On first seeing the city at the turn of the century, J.B. Purvis was taken aback by the rapid strides “taken to bridge the gulf between primitive barbarism and Western civilisation.” Captain Lardener meanwhile, arriving three years later, was “rather pleased with Kampala, the ancient capital formerly known as Mengo, [which] today presents a very different appearance to what it did only a few years back, when it was described as a gigantic banana grove. Excellent roads have been laid out, and stone houses are being built everywhere. The local shops are doing a good business, and more traders are arriving constantly as the inhabitants are becoming richer, and, of course, the greater their civilization, the greater their requirements."

The two of us, tired and weary from our long journey, only caught a glimpse of the city, as we slipped off the old road on to the Northern Bypass towards the house in Kisaasi on the outskirts of Kampala where I lived. Compared to the transformation the road to Buganda had undergone in the past 126 years, the Northern Bypass was a welcome but trivial improvement to this time-honoured route. Even so, that last stretch of the road was an abiding song to me, the type herdsmen sing to coax their cattle back home. 
I think Henry Morton Stanley best summed up the feeling: “'Bring out bullocks, sheep, and goat's milk, and the mellowest of your choicest bananas, and great jars of maramba, and the let the white man and his boatmen eat, and taste of the hospitalities of Uganda.”

Sir Gerald Portal, The British Mission to Uganda in 1893 (1894) 
H. M. Stanley, Through the Dark Continent (1899) 
C.W. Hattersley, A Boy's Life in Uganda (1900) 
C.W. Hattersley, Uganda by Pen and Camera (1907) 
J.D. Mullins, The Wonderful Story of Uganda (1908)
J. B. Purvis, Through Uganda to Mount Elgon (1909)
Captain E.G. Dion Lardner,  Soldering and Sport in Uganda (1912)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Gorillaland: A Jungle Odyssey (excerpt #4)

“General Nehru, sir!” cried a soldier, standing rigidly to attention just inside the entrance to the base’s large white mess tent, dressed in an Indian Army uniform and pale blue UN beret, and holding a satellite phone in his hand. “I have a call from Kinshasa, sir!”
“OK, I’m coming,” said General Nehru, wiping his moustache with a napkin and excusing himself from the officer’s table, where he had been enjoying a breakfast of chapatis and tea. He strode purposefully over to the enlisted man and took the receiver from his hand, thanking him. ”Hello,” he said cheerily. “Yes, I am he. Fine, thank you. Pleasure, I’m sure… Sorry, who? No, I had no idea he was coming to town. I see…Well, rest assured he will be well looked after by my blue helmets. What’s that? Am I coming to the tribunal? What tribunal?” The general, struggling to hear the caller’s next point over the din of the mess tent, stepped outside for a bit more quiet, but as he did Lieutenant-Major Dasgupta, who was also eating his breakfast at the officer’s table, looked cagily over his shoulder and strained to hear what his commander was saying. “Yes, I am fully aware of those allegations. They’re simply a load of rubbish...I can tell you this much right now, my soldiers are not involved in any such nonsense.”
“Involved in what?” wondered Dasgupta, looking around to see if any of the other officers at his table were paying any attention to the general’s phone call. They weren’t.
“Please, madam. The 57th Battalion is an upstanding unit of Indian peacekeepers. As their commanding officer I can vouch for their honour. I’m telling you, I am one hundred per cent certain none of my soldiers are involved. Why don’t you ask the Pakistanis?” There was a long delay during which the general listened to what the caller was saying, while nodding every which way and frantically twisting his moustache. “Has UN command gone stark raving mad?” he bellowed. “How can I be subpoenaed? I’m in the middle of a bloody war here, madam. My mandate is to protect these people here in Walikale, not to fly off to the capital to sit in bloody bastard tribunals…So now you’re accusing me of being involved in trading weapons for diamonds?” Disgusted, General Nehru ended the call and stormed back into the mess hall, shaking his head in astonishment.
“Trouble in Kinshasa?” asked Dasgupta, standing as the general retuned to the table.
“They’ve subpoenaed me to attend a bloody tribunal,” said Nehru, sitting himself back down at the table in a huff. “As if I don’t have enough bloody bastard problems on my bastard plate already. I really don’t have time to play silly buggers! Why didn’t any of you useless people tell me the Bishop of Bukavu was coming to Walikale?” After he’d calmed down a little, he caught the attention of the communications officer seated across from him and, while tucking back in to his chapatis, asked him, “Is it done?” The officer gave him an Indian nod to confirm that it was. “Good.”
Dasgupta eyed them suspiciously. “That reminds me,” he said, “the Chief Warden called again. He wants to know about joint patrols. He said he already discussed this with you, and that you thought it was a jolly good idea.”
“What joint patrols?” demanded the general with a mouthful of food.
“Joint patrols with the park rangers,” said Dasgupta, “to protect the gorillas.”
“You see, chaps,” said General Nehru, hastily swallowing his chapati, wiping his moustache and addressing the other officers at the table, with his arm outstretched, “now, you understand what we’re up against. Cosmo Zomba wa Zomba is in the jungle making festive decorations of innocent civilians, but the only thing these people care about is tribunals and saving bloody gorillas. Has the whole damn world gone stark raving mad?”

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Crossing Karamojo with Kigongo

Kidepo Valley was lit up by the fiery light of dusk like a son et lumiere. As our Cessna made its final approach, a herd of shaggy hartebeest scattered in desperate flight beneath us, terrified enough to part from their shadows. A strong headwind made the plane wobble and touch down on the murram runway like a rally car returning to earth. It looked to me like we had landed on an uninhabited exoplanet at the far side of the Universe.
Once a violent and cataclysmic volcano, venting the planet’s burning bowels through a cluster of fiery orifices, Kidepo had succumbed to time. Over hundreds of millions of years, the super volcano had collapsed, depositing its sediment evenly in the crater below, while its rim decayed into striking forms, many resembling wild animals such as rhinocerous and antelope. Except for a flat, horizontal gap to the East, about 40° wide that opened the way to South Sudan, the valley was surrounded by summits, some as high as 2,750 metres. 
When we drove away from the airfield, the skittish hartebeest I’d seen from the air had all returned to impassive grazing. They have far greater threats to worry about in this valley than bald apes in flying cages. 
Kidepo Valley National Park is my 25th East African park, and possibly the most spectacular I have ever visited. The 1,442 sq km park was opened in 1962, the same year as Ugandan independence , and is one of Uganda's most outstanding parks, with a higher mammal count than any other in the country, yet as we continued through to the park to our camp we found it strangely devoid of visitors. Ours was the only other vehicle, which led us to believe this was also Uganda’s best kept secret.
Our lodgings, N’ga Moru Wilderness Camp, is one of only a handful of properties in and around the park, and arguably the best. By the fire, after dinner, owners Patrick and Lyn regaled us with stories of chasing lions away from the tents to allow clients access to their beds. Thankfully, no simbas were visiting that night. The place was tranquil and magical, with all the peaks of the caldera silhouetted against a starry firmament commanded by the full moon. 
At around 10 o’clock (absolutely the latest anyone should ever stay up in the bush), nearing its zenith the moon began to dim, like a biscuit being dipped in coffee. It was going to be the darkest night in 100 years. We had arrived just in time to witness 2011’s total lunar eclipse, and in Kidepo Valley we had front-row seats. Watching the starry night emerge around the darkened moon was eerie and breathtaking. The company made all the difference.
Despite retiring late, when the moon was still in earth’s shadow, we were up with the birds and out on a dawn game drive before it had even set. As our Land Cruiser rolled across the verdurous, undulating graben, between herds of bushbuck and hartebeest, my first thought was to never tell anyone about this place. Here was a vast, peculiar terrain that time had completely forgotten. After only a short distance, we encountered a pride of male lions, basking in the morning sun, which Martine our guide told us was Tim’s Pride.
Boasting a dark shaggy main one of them rose, and cast a gangly lion shadow West across the open savannah as if attached to the setting moon. He then sauntered over to join some sleeping friends, where he collapsed nonchalantly into the grass. Predators rule this valley. 
Other carnivores include the bat-eared fox, striped hyena, aardwolf, caracal, cheetah and hunting dog but you don’t see them chilling by the road. Prey is scarce, in particular zebra, Impala and eland, the latter which UWA tried to bring back in a disastrous reintroduction programme. Hence, competition among the carnivores is high.

Martine is Dodos, a tribe of the Karamojong who dominate Karamoja, the bone-dry province in the north-eastern corner of the country, equivalent to one tenth of the size of Uganda, where the park is situated. They migrated here as part of a group who left present-day Ethiopia 400 years ago and split into two branches, the Kalenjin and Maasai who migrated to Kenya and Tanzania, and the Ateker, who migrated westwards to South Sudan and Uganda.  Karamojong means “the ones we left behind” and in many way that remains their status in modern Uganda. Stereotypes persist, especially about their lack of attire, though they’ve largely covered up in recent years.
Due to frequent cattle raids, the Karamojong are in constant conflict with their neighbors in Uganda, Sudan and Kenya, in particular the Turkana. They believe they have a divine right to all the cattle in the world. Young men use the raids as a right of manhood, or to increase their status, though the typical reason is to pay for a hefty bride price. 
Karamojo: Uganda’s Land of Warrior Nomads is stunning portrayal, both pictorially and narratively, of this area and its people. Written by Karimojong journalist, Sylvester Onyang, and American writer, Jeremy O'Kasick, with photographs by NatGeo’s David Pluth, it offers a unique insight into Karimojong culture, history and everyday life, as exemplified by this description of an elder: 
“With more than 90 years behind him, Apalorot is seen by the Karimojong as sitting between the realms of life and death. He tells of the old stories: the days when the white men, the British, had little presence and no power in Karamoja; the caravans as long as the sky of Swahili and Ethiopian elephant hunters, slave traders and merchants that passed through their lands; the battles between Karimojong and Turkana when they had few rifles.  It was in that time when Apalorot understood that he would one day inherit his grandfather’s gift to appease God’s spirits. He would then become a link between his people and the sky, the sky being Akuj, Akuj being God.” 
I wondered if Apalorot knew Karamojo Bell, one of the very first British visitors (though he would have insisted on being called Scots). In 1897, at the age of 17, and toting a single-shot .303, Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell arrived in the East African interior on the nose of a Uganda Railway locomotive. He had been hired by the railway to take out lions. Not seeing much currency in simba hides he turned his attention to elephant and headed north in search of the legendary tuskers of Karamoja. 
He returned again and again and earned the nickname "Karamojo" for his extraordinary elephant-hunting exploits in the province. For the next 25 years he hunted in Uganda, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Central Africa and West Africa and shot a total of 1,011 elephants. 
It was all about angles with Bell. The “Bell Shot” ensured quick death for his elephants, shooting them through the brain with the small bore calibre rifle, usually from behind their ear which he targeted while hotfooting behind the fleeing tembo. Demand for his elephant hunting books is so high they’re all still in copyright today. 
There aren’t so many tembos left these days. But the decimation of the elephant population from its hundreds of thousands can not be attributed entirely to Karamojo Bell, who hunted farther into the Central African interior after the British colonial administration imposed a ban on ivory hunting in Uganda in 1909. That must have signaled the end of the era Apalorot spoke of, when the white men, the British, had little presence and no power in Karamoja.” 

Feeling adventuresome, Kigongo and I decided to return south down a road seldom travelled, the fabled eastern route, which runs parallel with the Kenyan border and has a reputation for bandits. Our first leg passed through Kabong, Kotido, and Lockchar, towns each separated by a hundred kilometers of empty road. We hoped to reach Mount Moroto by midday. 
Driving through the barren scrubland over newly-graded murram surfaces, the journey was relatively smooth. And thankfully there were no bandits. In fact, for prolonged stretches we encountered no one else, not another living soul, as we crossed this extraordinary landscape of striking rocky outcrops, jagged inselbergs and crumbling kopje’s. A Nasa probe would not have looked out of place.
We reached Moroto slightly behind schedule, and enjoyed a refreshing beer and sandwiches at the Mt Moroto Hotel. With just a slight increase in elevation, the air cooled considerably, offering us a chance to chill before continuing on. 
Travelers have avoided this back road for many years, but Mount Moroto boasts a must-see forest reserve, protecting a range of habitats from arid thorn savanna to dry montane forest. It’s also a birder’s paradise, included as one of the few sites to spot Uganda's only truly endemic bird, Fox's Weaver. 
We continued south through Nakaprirpit, past the majestic Debassian range, dominated by the monumental Mt Kadam. When we entered the Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve, the route rapidly deteriorated. Having witnessed a lunar eclipse the night before we were now being subjected to its landscape. 
The road remained atrocious for about 85 kilometers, all the way from the town of Namuru to Sorinko in the foothills of Mt Elgon - an area devastated by mud slides in 2010. We were relieved when we saw Sipi Falls in the distance, cascading from the highlands, as we knew that meant we had at last left of bandit country, and were approaching a paved road. We finally reached the mountain town of Mbale just after sunset, having travelled 420 kilometers in 11 hours. 

Mbale is not typical of most Ugandan towns, in two ways: it neither grew out of a colonial station nor a pre-colonial settlement, and it was spared destruction during the Bush Wars in the 1980s.  

 In fact, Mbale was founded in 1902 by Semei Kakungulu, one of Uganda’s more colourful characters. He is also known for founding Uganda's only Jewish sect. In 1919, after abandoning politics in favour of spiritual pursuits, he wished to have himself circumcised, but was told the practice not only broke with Baganda heritage but also Christianity. “If this is so," he replied, "then from this day on I am a Jew.” He then sought sanctuary farther up Mt Elgon’s slopes where he founded his own self-styled sect, known as the Abayudaya (Luganda for Jew).
Though put together with a mishmash of Jewish and Christian customs, the Abayadaya developed a unique style of spiritual music, setting the text of Jewish prayers to African melodies and rhythms. Their proper conversion to Judaism came in 1926, with the arrival of a European Jew known simply as Yusufu, who spent six months with them and instructed Kakunguli to delete all the Christian prayers from his book, cease baptizing children, observe the Saturday Sabbath, and only eat kosher meat slaughtered according to Jewish custom.
Today only around 500 Abayudaya remain, having endured years of persecution, especially during the Amin era when some 3,000 abandoned their faith. They are not officially accepted as Jews, nor will they be until they undergo an recognised conversion, approved by a court of rabbis. But they continue to live according to Talmudic law. 

Imagine an ancient mountain, a volcano that has been standing solitary and silent for millennia, its base one of the largest in the world, its springs feeding numerous rivers and waterfalls, its rich soil nourishing communities across two countries and where you can wander the uncrowded trails to its summit at over four thousand meters.

Majestic and revitalizing, Mt Elgon must have looked like the promised land to anyone who set eyes upon it, especially after crossing the waterless wilderness. Towering nearly 2,500 meters above sea level, it is the oldest and largest solitary volcano in East Africa, covering an area of 3,500 square kilometers.
Ascending its gradual slopes, through dense montane forest, mixed bamboo and in the open Afro-alpine heath and moorland, the visitor encounters a mystical flora: giant lobelia and groundsels. There are plenty of primates along the way too, including Black and White colobus monkey, Debrazza’s monkey (occasionally) and Blue monkey, as well as leopard (occasionally), Bush pig, duiker, buffalo, and hundreds of bird species; Jackson's Francolin is found nowhere else in Uganda.
Sipi Falls, on Elgon's north-western slope has recently become a retreat for expatriates and middle-class Ugandans who regularly come for its invigorating waters. It's only a 4-hour journey from Kampala, and that’s where Kigongo and I were bound; it was time to stop mooning around the foothills Mount Elgon.
We headed south on a recently-paved road. I wish I could describe the final leg of our journey but I didn’t manage to stay awake for it. Basically, from memory, there’s lots of greenery and bananas, a bit of lakeshore, the Nile at Jinja, Mbira Forest and then the steamy, clamorous, lock jam, traffic jam - damn - that is Kampala. Gee, it's great to be back home.

[To follow our journey through Karamojo on Google Earth, download this file.]

Monday, December 5, 2011

Gorillaland: A Jungle Odyssey (excerpt #3)

Mordechai Levin was chairing the conference, and Rich Katz was seated five places down from Natalie Cox on the conference panel, which was situated on a raised platform at the front of the Hilton’s Mercury Ballroom. Rich was wearing a dark yarmulke on his shiny bald head under the bright lights. He adjusted the microphone, smoothed his goatee, and tilted his head so he could regard her as he spoke. “All I’m saying, Miss Cox, is that we need to also look at the good things the industry is doing in Africa, that’s all. It’s not all doom and gloom. The real problem in places like the Congo and Angola is not conflict diamonds, but a lack of economic stability and investment.”
Natalie was not going to let him get away with being so patronising. She was on a roll. The screening of Blood On Your High Street, with its surprising revelations about unlawful activity in the diamond trade, had enthralled the morning session and now she was confronting the guilty culprits. “That may be so, Mr Katz, but you certainly have a lot to answer for regarding the safety conditions of the mines in which you operate.”
“Oh that’s ridiculous,” said Rich. “So, now you’re attacking the industry because, what? Because of inadequate safety standards, in Africa? What next? Do we ban diamonds because jewellery is somehow degrading to women?” There was a murmur of laughter in the room.
“What about the fact that our undercover operatives could pawn smuggled diamonds to your dealers on 47th Street, without even the mention of certificates or proof of provenance?” asked Natalie with a confidence that belied her lack of experience.
“Those aren’t my dealers in your infomercial, Miss Cox,” said Rich, looking around the vast, ornate ballroom for more support among his fellow jewellers and diamond traders. “MultiGems hasn’t had a retail outlet on 47th Street since 1997.”
Another of the panel spoke, a lawyer with the Kimberly Process, who addressed Natalie over her reading glasses: “As appalled as we all are by the subject of your documentary, Miss Cox, selling diamonds to dealers in New York City, whatever their provenance, does not actually contravene any US laws. The United States Clean Diamonds Act applies only to the import and export of diamonds. Once they’re in the country they’re no longer illegitimate.”
“Are you kidding?” demanded Natalie. “Isn't that the kind of ridiculous loophole the Kimberly Process was meant to close?”
“Excuse me,” the woman retorted, “the Kimberly Process never had a remit for law enforcement. You should know that. However, the exchange of information between organisations is an integral part of making it work. Why won’t your organisation furnish us with the names of the people in your film?”
“That’s impossible,” Natalie replied. “It would put the lives of our operatives in danger.” In any case, she did not know their names. That is to say, her boss had not given her that information; there was too much at stake. She ignored the woman from the Kimberly Process, and kept up the pressure on Rich Katz. “I put it to you, Mr Katz, that companies like MultiGems should be prohibited from trading because you exploit poor miners. Your industry,” she said, turning sympathetically towards the audience, “should not be tolerating anything but ethically mined diamonds, and you should be censuring Mr Katz and his ilk for this sort of bad behaviour. If you do not, the international community will. It is within the power of the United Nations Investigation into the Illegal Exploitation of Resources to boycott companies like MultiGems.”
Rich stood up, causing the room to quiet down again. “Ms Cox, we work in an extraordinary industry. At one end of the supply chain is a piece of diamond jewellery that symbolises a deep emotional bond for our customers and at the other end are many thousands of poor Africans who rely on this industry for their livelihood. You talk of boycotts, campaigns and UN embargoes like you have a right to play God. To whom do you account, missus?” He sat down again triumphantly, to resounding applause.
“WorldWatch’s annual accounts...WorldWatch’s annual accounts are on the record,” retorted Natalie, “which is more than we can say for MultiGems, who don’t even publish accounts.”
“Fucking bitch!” said Rich, loudly enough for it to get picked up by his microphone and silence the room. Someone handed Mordechai a note and after reading it he spoke calmly over the public address system.
“Ladies and gentlemen. It is very nearly time for our coffee break, but I would like to ask everyone to just hang on for a moment and remain seated. I have been informed that a number of protesters have entered the hotel lobby and the police are having difficulty holding them back. So, for the time being, please remain in your seats.” Suddenly the door burst open, and several protesters wielding placards pushed their way into the Mercury Ballroom.
“African Solidarity rejects the notion,” shouted a woman with a megaphone, struggling to free herself from a security guard’s bear hug, “African Solidarity rejects the notion that there can be such a thing as conflict-free diamonds. All diamonds are blood diamonds, mired in the conflict of slavery and colonialism.”
“Oh, hell,” cried Natalie. “Look, I haven’t finished yet...”
“Please remain seated, everyone,” cried Mordechai over the din, “everything’s under control.”