'Scuttlebuckets' and old presumptions

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

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Flag of Tanzania  ,
Monday, March 29, 2010

Nineteen hours of jungle-sludge-slalom, skidding downhill on a bus-and-mud rollercoaster between two walls of dripping green – to get to the quay on time.

There are only two buses each week for the 400km run from Bukoba, on the west side of Victoria Lake, to Kigoma, near the northeast corner of Lake Tanganyika.

The remaining four days have 'return or maintenance'  stamped indelibly on their shattered chassis.

Roll in at 1am, to a strange town in overcast blackness, a stone’s throw from dodgy Democratic Republic of Congo, 45km from Burundi, refugee camp central. Look sharp, stranger.

Bus stations are mostly camped on the edge, or outside the edge of towns. It’s rare to roll off a bus straight into a bed.

The night is kind, and a tidy room is comfortably secured.

Scramble to the dock after some early daylight chalk-powder instant AfriCafe coffee – in search of the MV Liemba, a 97-year-old tramper that plies her trade up and down the length of the lake, Kigoma to Zambia and back. Once a week up, once a week down.

The ticket office is open, and empty.

An inner-sanctum chief calls, beckons, inquires, and innocuously informs: "We have the technical problem, please come back in a week’s time."

How many ways can you sing sang-froid?

“You mean the engine is broken?”

“Don’t worry, we just have the technical problem. Come back next week.”

The MV Liemba, built in 1913 and shipped and railed to the lake in crates pre-fab style, spent the first years of her life as the Graf von Gotzen, one of three ships Germany used to secure the lake’s shoreline during World War I.

Scuttled in 1916, she was salvaged in 1927, converted into a ferry, and has been shuttling the run from Bujumbura (Burundi) to Kigoma (Tanzania) and Mpulungu (Zambia) since.

Fractious Burundi has left the Bujumbura leg ‘under suspension’.

There is comfort the repairs are being conducted dockside, rather than chance drifting into Congolese dugout-canoe versions of Somali’s offshore marauders.

Time enough then to sit back and linger over an equatorial libation or three.

Winston Churchill once described Uganda as “the pearl of Africa”. Getting to Kigoma from Kampala is more like a ramble along a string of pearls, a string of lakes that trickles down this part of the western arm of the Great Rift Valley – a great gouge through Africa that splits at Lake Turkana, southern Ethiopia, and joins again at Lake Malawi.

Volcano tops, caldera country. Perfect circular reservoirs of water where ancient mountains subsided when Africa was squeezed then wrenched asunder following a collision of continental plates.

Lush green jungle camouflaging, obscuring then revealing mirrored saucer after saucer.

Kampala is big and bustling, but not nearly as aggressive as neighbours Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam. Roads are less congested and the green city spreads over hilltops for 20km.

Greetings, the daily, introductory bond of humanity includes not only “good day, how are you”, but also “how was your night, did you sleep well”?

Kampala is also R&R centre for hundreds of ‘volunteers’, of all ilk and age.

Again and again, “we’re working in an orphanage”; a month or two in an orphanage, make a bond with a child, take your holiday at a lake, and go home, to be replaced with surrogate mama-33, 34, 35 …

Uganda feels like an easy entry point into Africa, not hard like Sudan, or peculiarly different like Ethiopia, or materialist-driven Kenya (at least in its urbanities), or under the West’s dark umbrella covering Islamist nations.

Do ‘volunteers’, most of whom pay to be volunteers, elect for the softer landings?

Philosophical questions of who really benefits, or not, from this steady stream of Euro-idealogues weighs daily, with each young’un – for they’re mostly just out of school – that one stumbles across.

Foreign intentions have protested to be good since the days of Vasco de Gama. Bible-wielding civilizers … or so they claimed.

Or. as Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu cutely expounds: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

It’s not to knock a helping hand, just to question its long-term benefits.

Uganda’s green feel of softness, of man and land, however conceals a layer of brittleness and frustration not too far below the surface.

A security guard at Kampala’s Makerere University gets an itchy finger during student council electioneering. Words get heated between two opposing groups of supporters. Guard loses plot, kills two and wounds another. It just so happens all are Kenyan students, who make up the majority of the campus. A minor international incident.

The following day the student body goes on a mini-rampage, burning coffins through the streets.

Police plead – again – for authorities to strip ill-disciplined private security firms of firearms.

Two days later, the royal burial site of the last four Bugandan kings (Buganda, the largest of the traditional kingdoms of modern Uganda), a World Heritage site, is burnt to the ground by arsonists.

Conspiracy theorist central.

A long running feud between government and royalty gets seriously fired up.

President Yoweri Museveni toppled Milton Obote (who ruled before and after Idi Amin) in 1986, having courted the necessary backing of the Bugandans.

However a power struggle for influence has bedevilled the partnership to the point of grave mistrust.

The president visits the ashes of the burial site the day after the fire “to pay respects” and ineptly calculates the anger of the gathered ‘mourners’ – nor heeds their voiced suspicions of a government plot. Words, threats, stones and the presidential guard opens fire. Two dead.

The country watches carefully, guardedly.

But in general, there does seem an overarching ambience of patience and surface peace (at least to the outsider), notwithstanding the Lords Resistance Army that scavenges across the nation’s northern perimeter, floating into Southern Sudan, chased into the DRC, and now taking its toll in the Central African Republic.

A splinter relic of the war that brought Museveni to power, the so-called Christian militia professes to base its case on the 10 commandments. Messianic bossman Joseph Kony proclaims himself a spokesperson for god, and aims at the overthrow of Museveni.

They stock their battalions with kidnapped children, an estimated 30,000 so far, who are used a slaves, sex slaves and AK-47 wielders. Around 1,000,000 villagers have been displaced out of fear.

Rape, raid and ravage elicits plunder and loot to live by.

In the past few weeks attacks in the southeast of the CAR have resulted in dozens dead and around 100 kidnapped. Why there? Who’s the enemy? Nobody seems to know.

All of this goes around daily conversation, while sipping beer and eating fried chicken and chips in downtown Kampala eateries.

Travel, time and this kind of terror trouble are a complicated mix. Guide books that offer mostly decent information on hostel and hotel prices and bus routes can easily be caught out of date.

The latest edition of bog-standard Lonely Planet plots the safest course for tunnel-visioned travelers across north Uganda.

The edition was, by its nature, manufactured two to three years ago.

At that time, the LRA were operating out of south Sudan, and making northeast Uganda unpalatable.

Two roads go up to the remote, desired Kidepo Valley National Park, bordering Kenya and Sudan – up the east, and west, of north Uganda.

The guide book ‘strongly recommends’ travellers show extreme caution on the eastern route, giving the nod to the west.

Time moves on, so did the LRA.

Local safari guides now say they seriously avoid the western route, with the LRA currently operating out of CAR and DRC.

Early this year a vehicle travelling in the northwest runs into an ambush. One tourist, one safari operator, one policeman – dead.

Very, very easy to get into very, very big trouble.

There are some organizations and their workers you can only doff your cap to.

Trish Mackenzie, a nurse for Medicine Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), is the only foreigner in a little village near the northern border of the Congo. She can only get in and out by flight. She must check in every four hours with the 2-way radio she constantly carries to tell base in Bunia, northeast Congo, that she is still alive.

It is not an LRA frontline village, “that’s 20km north, on the border. They deal with the broken people, I just deal with those who can get this far back for treatment”.

But then Trish, Canadian, is not like most: “When I was 10, they asked us at school what we wanted to do. I misunderstood, I suppose. I said I wanted to live without electricity or running water.”

Ten years ago she moved up to the Yukon, where she lives in her tent between MSF stints. “It’s got a little wood stove inside to keep me alive. It’s so cold that if you want an apple for breakfast, you have to sleep with it in your armpit.”

No electricity, but the river water does run past. When it’s frozen, snow is the go.

Her Congo stint ends in two months’ time. Will you extend? “No, I have to go home to chop wood for the winter.”

She visits the peace of Ugandan lakes to lighten the load a bit.

Head west (not north-north-west), towards the Rwenzori Mountains, fabled Mountains of the Moon. Up, uphill the road goes to Fort Portal, at the foothills of one of the last hideouts of gorillas and chimpanzees. Clouds, mist, green, green. Super blue sky force-feeds light texture into the world, turning all the colours kaleidoscopic, super-real.

The road turns south, the mountains rising to the right, bordering Congo, the old volcanic tops and circular lakes to the left. A benign beauty creeps into the air and bus.

Banana fields stretch for miles. Small wattle and daub villages appear out of the green shield, yielding up a passenger or two, fresh fruit too.

The soil is fertile, fecund, as only old volcanic soil can be. Coupled with equatorial sun and dollops of rain, everything grows, and grows bigger. Mangos and avocados are two-three fists big, their innards creamy and smooth, like high-quality ice-cream. Banana species as long as a forearm. Pineapples are in abundance. Passion fruit (grenadilla) grows everywhere. It is the common, not the exotic. Order a fruit salad and de rigeur get the chopped delicacies drowned, not drizzled, with delicious passionata.

The landscape begins to assume a surreal mix of New Zealand and Switzerland. Valleys verdant, flecked with drifting, floating puffs of moist white, pink and grey, the insistent yellow and green of stem after stem of bananas shining through, lakes a-shimmer, cut and chiseled lines of field riding up and down the slopes. Neatly coiffured homes, of almost Mediterranean shades, dapple through the comfort of lush frond and shade.

Stumble into Lake Bunyoni, in the county’s far southeast.

Catch a shovel-nosed dugout, paddled across the still depths, to one of dozens of islands. Green, always green, a green rolling hill with a small lodge built into and on to it.

Spend a week, smiling. Though this too, is a volunteer chill spot.

The island across the way, 500m away, only hosts a school. Children arrive out of the early morning rising mist jammed into dugout ferries. Out they climb, avoiding the mud, in light blue and white uniforms. A dream school. No distractions, traffic, bad boys outside, hoots, horns and sirens. Just learn, and play football in the afternoon along the thick, soft grass. Hundreds of species of birds fly over them, watch over them.

There are no crocodiles, no hippos, no currents. Strangely no snakes either, in what seems snake paradise. This is farming country, light fishing country. These dangers would have been dispensed with centuries ago.

Benign beauty. Hillside sitting, hillside reading, hillside wining on scudding and soporific cloud dependant only of whim and wind.

Too easy to get stuck, an easy hill to drift with thought.

Consider discrimination, the bane of so much of Africa. Not exclusive only to players north and south of the Mediterranean.

Rwanda, just up the road: in the devil’s old game of divide and rule, Belgium decides the minority Tutsis of Ethiopian, Nilotic descent should be the de facto rulers of majority Hutus, of Bantu origin. Belgium leaves. Majority decides it’s had enough and lets loose, at anything that looks like a Tutsi, taller, slenderer, paler, even if it is one of theirs.  Half a million dead, in 100 days.

The madness that is DRC is just across the road here, and Burundi’s fluctuations are just behind my right elbow.

Africa’s nay-sayers love to trot out the litany of the continent’s horrors perpetrated over the past century.

Time to sit and sip and think.

Experiment. Place the map of Africa over Europe and half of Asia. Consider and count the horrors perpetrated in that zone, and from that zone, over the past century.

Very uncomfortable. Not the prettiest picture.

Too much time sitting, sipping, thinking, head on, slide past the Virungas, home to Dian Fossey’s gorillas in the mist. Now her gravesite, alongside favourite silverback Digit. Both murdered.

Head into Tanzania, to Victoria Lake, popularly referred to as the source of the Nile.

It’s a tricky story, as the Nile splits into the White and Blue: the Blue Nile carries more water from the east, but the White Nile is longer.

Victoria Lake itself is filled by feeder streams and rivers.

In 1903, German adventurer Richard Kandt traced what is accepted as the White Nile’s source, in the Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda.

But meddlesome modern technology throws a spanner into the works. In 2005, a professional rafter from Jinja, where the Nile meets Lake Victoria, gets in a boat at Alexandra with a GPS, and heads upstream, finally arriving at a spot 15km from Kandt’s spring … but along a route which would make the Nile 6,718km, 107km longer than previously thought.

The jury is still out.

Go to the docks, and see European Commission-sponsored fishing boats come in. Two tons of Nile Perch piled on a stern.

The skipper raves when the camera is pointed at him and his haul. Overcatch? Undersize?

And on down to Kigoma, along a machete-slash of an apology for a road through the jungle.

The second half of the trip is a long descent, of short up hills, and long downhills. Passengers white-knuckle the hand rests in front of them, corrugation judders, close focus is near impossible, the road is slime and bump, slither and slurp.

The corrugation lifts the wheels, allows the bus to drift left and right, depending on the worn, wearing camber of the one-and-a-half vehicle width road, a motion exacerbated by the mud. Hit a rut-a-tut-a-tut…. lift, drift, land, slide, front wheels correct, down, down into the valley where the water gathers, softish, the deepest hole at the bottom draughted out by truck after truck. Ga-thawump!

Not overspeeding, not overloading, just the combination of equator and Africa.

This is a road-ride, after all.

Gombe Stream lies 25km north of Kigoma. Home to Dame Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee research station, recently visited by my friend and African naturalist extraodinaire, fondly known as ‘The Monkey Eater’ for reasons best left out of this paragraph. 

More famously, the lakeside port lies 8km from Ujiji village, where Henry Morton Stanley muttered his immortal words to David Livingstone.

Stand on the greeting spot, and unsuccessfully try and see Lake Tanganyika through the trees and houses, finding it difficult to believe the shoreline has receded 800m since that day in 1871.

It is a solemn little ground. The fabled mango tree, under which the meeting took place, died a natural death just after the turn of the last century, the local guardian and historical reciter informs me.

Splices were taken from it, which grew into the two trees not 10m away from the legendary spot.

In Stanley’s words: “I would have run to him, only I was a coward in the presence of such a mob, - would have embraced him, only, he being an Englishman, I did not know how he would receive me; so I did what cowardice and false pride suggested was the best thing, - walked deliberately to him, took off my hat, and said, 'Dr. Livingstone, I presume?'

 'Yes,' said he, with a kind smile, lifting his cap slightly.”

Livingstone, the missionary. The site is now looked after by a Muslim devotee, who speaks impeccable English and for a minor stipend faux-dramatically describes Livingstone’s life.

A Muslim protector of a Christian stronghold. We chuckle merrily.

A large mosque, wide and calm, does its own work 200m down the road. Times change.

Sit back on Kigoma’s shoreline, gaze at the sunset over Congo, translucent egg yolk yellow clouds that turn dark ruby, growing darker and darker.

Sip on a relaxant, and spend long, quiet moments thinking about an old 'scuttlebucket' with “the little technical problem”.
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Faith on

Just so enthralling as always. Luv the pictures.
Look out for Crystal in Zambia

katherine-anne on

interesting observations on the 'volunteers' - a lot to be said about that subject.
i'd be happy to discuss it with you sometime k

Mr H on

Brilliant read as ever.

Angela on

Beautifully written!

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