A Travellerspoint blog

Driving Home for Christmas

sunny 30 °C

Christmas is often a busy and hectic time.

Despite being known as laid-back this can also be true of Africa. The over-used phrase ‘No hurry in Africa’ is definitely not true on the roads in general as people that have experienced the traffic in Nairobi or ‘Jam-pala’ know from frustrating experience. At Christmas, many people are traveling back to the villages to visit family. So much so, that Kampala, Uganda’s capital, is known to be a lot quieter with fewer traffic jams due to this migration outwards. Due to the increased demand, bus fares increase in price and it is hard to get a seat.

Unfortunately, it is also well-known that traveling around Christmas is more dangerous too. There are increased incidences of vehicle crashes and people intensify their prayers for road safety, praying against the ‘spirit of accidents’, whatever that means!

In general, our area of Africa is known to have poor roads and high road fatalities. Uganda, for instance, has 27.4 traffic deaths per 100,000 people compared to 2.9 in the UK (WHO, 2015). Road surfaces are often dangerous being pot-holed and narrow and many road users are untrained. Cattle, goats, chickens, bicycles and children are wandering near the main roads and straying onto them. Police can be more interested in getting their ‘Christmas money’ rather than maintaining safety standards such as overloaded vehicles. It is an unfortunate fact that 90% of the world’s road fatalities occur in low to middle-income countries, despite these countries having half of the world’s vehicles (WHO, 2015).

I am therefore always more nervous and prayerful when making long journeys in the car and especially by bus or boda boda (a motorbike taxi).

With these thoughts at the forefront of my mind, I nervously and prayerfully begin my long journey to Kisumu, Kenya where I was hoping to organise a new birth certificate for Amelie, our first-born who was born there in 2010. At that time, we worked with REAP for a year, a Christian agriculture and development organisation. For some reason, Amelie’s original birth certificate was missing at the Government Registry so they wanted me there in person with evidence to get a new one processed.

I took an over- night bus out of Arua to Kampala with KK Traveller, paying the extra money for a ‘Comfort’ bus. My thinking was that by paying a few pounds more, I would be traveling with the more affluent customer and be less likely to get robbed. Being near the back of the bus, I kept feeling the awful ribbed humps that regularly came up on the highways. They really jolted me and kept me from falling into a good sleep. Although I don't like night-buses, they are very popular since people feel they don't lose a day by traveling, but because of the lack of rest, my body grumbles against it and I feel groggy.

We reach Kampala at 6 in the morning. I have lots of jobs to do in Kampala and so use my trusted boda-boda driver around town. In my experience, this is really the only way to get around Kampala to schedule if you have limited time, as you don't know when the jams in town will keep you from moving. Jams seem to happen anytime, and have known to last 4 hours, crawling through just a few kilometres.
On my boda in Kampala

On my boda in Kampala


Riding a boda-boda in Kampala feels like an intense adrenaline rush, similar in feeling to an extreme sport, I expect, probably because you are taking your life in your hands. (Living in Africa itself often feels like living in a perpetual extreme sport, hence there being no need for paying for these experiences). As you dodge around cars, trucks and matatus, there is only marginal time and space for any mistake. I always marvel at the skill at the way the boda driver manoeuvres, his eye-hand co-ordination seems incredible. Despite the fear and worry I feel inside, I keep as still and relaxed as possible so as to not put my driver off and so make a mistake.

However, it is also a well-known fact that the highest causes of accidents and injuries is through riding a boda-boda, especially since most riders and passengers don't wear helmets. Peace Corps, an American volunteer agency working in Uganda, for instance, does not allow its workers to ride boda-bodas at all. In 2010, a study on the “Impact of Bodaboda Motor Crashes on the Budget for Clinical Services at Mulago Hospital, Kampala” found that 75% of all road traffic accidents involved boda bodas. (Mulago government hospital is the largest hospital in Uganda.)

Thankfully, I am able to get my work done safely. In the meantime, Emma has sent round a message to friends on WhatsApp asking for prayer for my travels as the morning brought news of 2 buses colliding on the Arua-Kampala route.

The bus to Kisumu, Kenya on Modern Coast is early the next morning and my boda-boda driver weaves expertly through congested roads to get me there on time. Carrying my small suitcase and backpack on the back as I ride makes it an even less comfortable and potentially risky ride.

The Modern Coast coach really surprised me with its comfortable large reclining seats like armchairs that you sank right into and small TV monitors. Unfortunately, the TVs didn't work, but the overall look of the bus was very impressive.
The interior of the Modern Coast coach

The interior of the Modern Coast coach

People trafficking warning at the Kenya/Uganda border

People trafficking warning at the Kenya/Uganda border


Kisumu is like a walk down memory lane for me as Emma and I lived there 7 years ago while working for REAP. It is also where I was hoping to get Amelie’s new birth certificate organised within the few days I had there, the main reason for traveling 780 kilometres across East Africa.

It was also really good to connect with old friends and colleagues. The founder and director of REAP is the impressively bearded Dr Roger and we had co-ordinated so we could catch up there. As he drives by, local youths call out ‘Jesus!’ or ‘Saddam!’, 2 very different people! REAP’s work serves to support the materially poor with relevant teaching on managing land and homestead. It is very interesting.Unflattering selfie at REAP demonstration farm

Unflattering selfie at REAP demonstration farm


Dr Roger

Dr Roger

Kisumu centre

Kisumu centre


One of my old REAP colleagues, Sam, lives about 70km out along Lake Victoria near a fishing village called Asembo. Sam was once a fisherman himself before fish stocks grew too scarce. (Environmental problems like low fish stocks are growing issue on Lake Victoria). I had stayed out at his village home a couple of times before, and he invited me there for another overnight to meet his 2nd wife, a Ugandan lady he affectionally calls ‘Matooke’ after the famous Ugandan food, and eat tilapia fish, the food the Luo people, like him, love.

So it was that I ended up traveling on a ‘Matatu’, the ubiquitous white van that serves as an affordable transport for local people over longer distances in towns or between towns. These white vans are notoriously bad road users that don't follow any traffic rules, stopping when and where they want without using any signals. In Kisumu, they are often pimped up with bright paint-jobs and stickers emblazoned over them and music pumping. On our matatu, the music was mixed by dj big, vig or fig, I couldn't quite get his name whenever his tagline was mentioned in the music: ‘dj big, the mixmaster’.
Matatu

Matatu

The ubiquitous matatu...

The ubiquitous matatu...


The matatu waits until it is full of passengers before leaving. There is a bit of haggling needed before accepting to enter as the ‘conductor’ has quoted a high price, likely because of my being a ‘Mzungu’. As we sit waiting, the matatu passengers are bombarded by sales people (walking shops) selling a whole range of items despite the ‘No Hawking’ sign behind them: sunglasses, watches, drinks, vests, mirrors, padlocks, necklaces, bracelets, torches, reading glasses, belts… The sales person uses various tactics to sell their product including dropping the item on your lap or hanging around and explaining just how much you need to buy it or looking at you longingly. I end up getting a newspaper and a lollipop.
Selling watches to matatu passengers

Selling watches to matatu passengers

Selling juice to matatu passengers

Selling juice to matatu passengers


The matatu leaves when all available space is taken up. This means that there are 4 people per row instead of the intended 3 maximum with the conductor himself hanging outside of the open door or standing up and leaning over the passengers. On many levels, the matatu is a typical African experience. There is no personal space so is great If you like things cosy. It’s definitely not a British way to travel… Bodies are pressed together and where they meet, it gets sweaty within the hot metal van. Without seat belts, the pressing together makes me feel a bit safer somehow. However, manoeuvring in and out of your seats takes some contortions, especially if you are of a wider and ‘traditional’ build.
Tightly packed in

Tightly packed in


We pass police at the roadside and the conductor has his 50 shillings rolled up in his palm. The exchange is subtle and unnoticeable.
There are signs stuck within the matatu to remind us that we are traveling in another dangerous African machine. They tell passengers that they need to speak up to tell the driver to slow down if they are driving too fast. Road accidents are a nasty problem in Kenya as well. Since being in Kenya for the last few days, I had already heard about 2 nasty crashes on a notorious stretch of road leaving many dead including some up-and-coming musicians. Pictures of crushed vehicles and road carnage was being played over the Kenyan TV news. Very comforting.
Avoid accidents, tell the driver to slow down.

Avoid accidents, tell the driver to slow down.


Thankfully, I do not become a grim statistic and my time with Sam is a good memory with very tasty fried fish and a visit Sam’s local fishing community. I return safely in another matatu to Kisumu.
Sam at his fishing village, Lake Victoria

Sam at his fishing village, Lake Victoria


Another overnight bus to Kampala and then onwards to Arua on KK Traveller again, I am relieved and happy to be home to see the family to celebrate Christmas.
Christmas with family

Christmas with family


Driving home for Christmas in Africa is not something any of us here takes lightly.
Christmas with friends

Christmas with friends

Posted by africraigs 05:53 Archived in Kenya Comments (2)

Names will never hurt me

semi-overcast 27 °C

‘Meet my best friend’ called our friendly night watchman, as another jovial guy walked past the house… After the usual greetings, I asked the watchman what his friend’s name was, ‘Oh,’ he replied, ‘I don’t know.’

It made us laugh that he didn’t know his best friend’s name, but we’ve seen this happen a few times here in Arua.

For instance, other local friends live together in a shared homestead: three brothers, their wives, children, extra orphans and various animals, all doing life together. So it surprised us when he didn’t know the name of the sister-in- law who they share a home with. He said he just calls her ‘Mama Lilian’ after the firstborn child.

We have had the privilege of naming a few of our friends’ children recently. Two of the new babies in Arua are called ‘Zoë’ meaning ‘Life’ after Emma’s youngest sister. Another friend took Emma’s suggestion of ‘Aaron’ for his son. He likely isn’t aware of the Scottish island that our Arran is named after.
Big Zoe celebrating her 1st birthday!

Big Zoe celebrating her 1st birthday!

Baby Zoe with Mum and big sister

Baby Zoe with Mum and big sister


In our culture, there is much thought, discussion and even prayer when choosing a name for the unborn child. Names are chosen because of its meaning, or because of a significant person or sometimes because of the attractive way it sounds. Most of the time, the baby name is chosen beforehand. Amongst many African households, a baby is traditionally not named until a baby shows he/she is surviving. The infant mortality, although falling, is still high and so it is not practical or emotionally convenient to name a baby from the outset.

Lugbara names have traditionally been negative. Children will be named according to the circumstances they were born into or how the mother is feeling. During wartime, children may be named ‘Adiga’ meaning ‘war’. If a mother has been having struggles, a child can be named Driciru, a girl’s name meaning ‘suffering’. A lady I worked with had a mother who had many babies that didn’t survive infancy. For this reason, she was called ‘Drajoru’, meaning ‘Death in the place’. Drateru and Dravoru (‘Dra’ meaning ‘death’) are other names related to death. Another lady is called ‘Lekuru’ which means ‘dislike’ because her dad didn’t want to have another girl and actually wanted her thrown away. She was one of 9 girls in the family (out of 12). Another lady is called ‘Useless’ in Lugbara because her dad didn’t want another girl.

The sad name list goes on…

The name ‘Candia’ is translated ‘Misery’, and is a surprisingly common name for girls and boys. A woman whose husband ran away after giving birth called her son ‘Foolish’. A colleague I work with at Lifeskills told me her story of being abandoned by her father when she was a baby. Just before giving birth, her mother was homeless. Her mother ended up giving birth amongst the cassava plants in a field. Her mother called her ‘wanderer’.

Although there are still plenty of unfortunately- named people running about, thankfully, there has been some change in the way children are named as the hopeful message of the Bible takes root and Biblical names like Love (Leta) or Joy (Ayiko) are being given. The hope of the Bible message is the reason I appreciate it so much. It is the reason we work here in West Nile. Whether it is in the family, in farming or in doing commerce, the Biblical message is in the business of changing lives and making a difference for people, including how someone is named. To me, Christianity is not a religion to help people pretend to be pious and act holy, it is something which can really make positive change. That should be good news for new babies being born in West Nile…

Posted by africraigs 00:59 Archived in Uganda Comments (0)

Cross Country Runs

and a dusty cross-cultural setting

semi-overcast 34 °C

The pastel yellow dust billows behind the truck as it careers towards me like charging rhino, taking over the marram road. I get out the way by running into the ditch, being careful I don't trip on the rough surface. The cloud makes me disappear for a few seconds and I try not to inhale. Still, I feel the grains of dirt in my mouth and taste the earth. My puffy hair makes a good dust catcher as I will discover in the shower later on.
Running on the dirt road

Running on the dirt road


In the UK, I feel quite proud of myself when I pound the streets. As I race down the Edinburgh pavements, I feel part of something bigger, a culture of health and fitness. As I jog along Portobello beach, struggle up Arthur's seat or disappear down one of the network of cycle tracks criss-crossing the town, I am one of the thousands trying to push their bodies to get a little fitter. It is popular wisdom that running is an excellent lifestyle choice. There are races up and down the country of varying distances, running magazines giving advice on training schedules and specialised running shops.
Running in the Edinburgh Marathon Festival 10km 2016

Running in the Edinburgh Marathon Festival 10km 2016


Running in Africa, though, is a very different experience.

In Africa, I feel like a TV show, an entertainment for whole villages as I run by. People turn their heads towards the strange sight. I feel the eyes of everyone following me, the ghost moves by, panting and sweating in the 30 degree temperatures. Little kids with ripped t-shirts and dirty faces pause while collecting firewood to shout 'Mundu' as I pass, cheering and waving. Often, the shouts turn to chants of 'Mundu, how are you, I am fine' repeated over and over and over. I am convinced they are taught this chanting at school to practice if they are ever lucky enough to encounter any strange 'whites'. As I near the kids, some will dart away into the long yellow grass, holding up their shorts with terrified faces, scared that I might eat them. If I have the extra energy, I will chase the scared kids further into the bush and act like I am going to catch them. This gives me morbid pleasure and some brief relief on the hot run.

At other times, though, I feel like I'm a hero in a marathon as peoples' faces light up, broad smiles on their faces and they shout 'Well done'! Recently, one lady wearing a scarf and selling vegetables at the road-side started clapping loudly.

Most of the time, I try to keep focused on keeping a good rhythm on the run, rather than get distracted by the innumerable staring faces or laughing youth. On one run, I counted how many times I greeted people and it was over 200 times! Otherwise, though, I am very thankful for my iPod dance tunes that insulates me from the crowding in of others. At the end of the day, this is supposed to be my 'leisure' or 'escape' time, even if it doesn't feel like it. Before coming to live cross-culturally, the missions training encouraged us to consider what hobby or activity you would do to keep yourself healthy. In a stressful environment, it is very important to practice self-care spiritually, emotionally and physically. Running and exercise is part of that self-care for me, but is more challenging to practice here.

It feels weird running here as it is so counter-cultural. What is the point of expending that extra energy? Most people, especially the women, are doing plenty of physical labour just to survive, digging in the fields, carrying 30kg bags of charcoal on their heads or fetching water. By necessity, most people often walk miles and miles and have dirty cracked feet to show for it. I sense pangs of guilt thinking that I am privileged enough to have to work off my extra calories from the chocolate cake Emma made, in an environment where some people might only eat one meal a day and their calorie intake might barely be enough to sustain themselves. This is a context where over 10.9 million people are food insecure across Uganda this year due to poor rains and poor harvests last season. It is also in a context where South Sudan, only 2 hours drive away is suffering from war-induced famine in some areas and critical food insecurity otherwise. It is sobering thought that is a privilege to be a leisure runner and know I have some responsibility with God's help to support others who are not so privileged. This is a burden that is always in the background of life here in Arua, even while I am running along dirt tracks.
Ladies walking 10km to sell bananas

Ladies walking 10km to sell bananas

These ladies carry 30kg bags of charcoal for sale

These ladies carry 30kg bags of charcoal for sale

Fetching water

Fetching water

Contemplating Life's Issues

Contemplating Life's Issues

Posted by africraigs 01:52 Archived in Uganda Comments (1)

In a Sun Scorched Land

sunny 35 °C

“This is the worst year”.
“This is my first time to see this”.

These are exclamations when talking to friends and colleagues about the current dry spell in Arua.

Of course, it is ‘dry season’ when rains aren’t expected till sometime in March and when the weather is especially hot and dry. Inside the house last night, the temperature didn’t drop below 29 degrees and it was stifling lying in bed and hard to sleep. Some local friends have told me they have been sleeping on the ground or outside. Of course, our fan couldn’t be on as the power was off. The water level in the dams are too low to produce much hydro-electricity, so load-shedding is the order. We are very thankful for our 3 solar panels that provide us some power. Daytime temperatures are 35 degrees plus.

But, this hot weather isn’t out of the ordinary. What is less common is that the normal ‘long rains’ from July to November of last year, didn’t arrive as expected and there was a lot less rainfall than normal. Crops like beans or maize that were planted dried out in the fields. Groundnuts that do especially well here, died. This has happened to vulnerable people living a subsistence lifestyle in a highly fragile environment. For these people, few buffers exist except the social networks which allow people to help each other in difficulty.

Friends and colleagues have shared their experience of what the drought has meant for them. Kevin (a woman!), who helps us with washing clothes explains that people have been sleeping on her compound to make sure they are early to the borehole near her as so many people are competing for the water. Lilian, our other helper tells us that she pays a boy about 10p to stand in line at the borehole to fill up her jerrycans as the queue is so long. Abdu, my colleague at Lifestitches says that he gets up at midnight or 1am to pump water because it is too busy at other times. Our security guard, John walks 5km to take a bath in the river since the borehole water is only used for drinking now.
Pumping water at a local borehole

Pumping water at a local borehole

A long line of jerry cans waiting for the borehole.

A long line of jerry cans waiting for the borehole.

Collecting water is an all-day process

Collecting water is an all-day process


As usual in East Africa, there is scant attention given to the plight of common people and subsequently poor media coverage of the situation so it is difficult to know what is going on, however, it seems that La Nina may have played a role in the changed weather pattern. Of course, poor land management such as denuding the land of trees surely has a big effect on the rainfall.

Although town water was a bit haphazard before December, coming only at night, piped water suddenly completely dried up all over Arua. Water levels in the river were too low for the water company to pump from. Lucky for us, we had water in our rainwater tanks which gave us a buffer for a time, but after a short while, even those ran empty.

For the first time, we had to phone a water truck to come and fill up the rainwater tanks. This would allow me to pump water into the house to let us use the indoor plumbing.
Water being transported on the back of the pick-up

Water being transported on the back of the pick-up


Thankfully, we have access to these water trucks that became very busy, sometimes making trips at 10pm to desperate customers like us!

What is remarkable to us about our friends and colleagues in Arua is how well people take these difficult circumstances. In the UK, any similar situation is unthinkable. There, we expect things to work well, or we will complain, write to the newspapers or even sue!

I am always impressed by the levels of difficulty and suffering that people endure and still manage to have a smile and laugh easily. People have an incredible attitude in the midst of suffering. It is common for friends to let you know that a family member has died in awful circumstances in a very matter-of-fact manner. On Wednesday, for example, one Lifestitches lady greeted me and then shared with me that her brother had died in a motorbike accident the day before. She wasn’t too fazed and got on with her work at the workshop. Here, death seems so common, but is an accepted part of life.

A negative consequence of this attitude of acceptance is that people have very low expectations and don’t hold organisations or the government to account for poor services. People are used to fending for themselves in all aspects of life. There is no expectation of change and little vision for a different world. This fatalistic attitude is said to hold development back. However, it could also be a ‘survival’ mentality borne out of experience of constantly being let down by systems like the health service or electricity board or corruption generally.

As someone with a Western perspective, it is incredible to appreciate that Arua’s water problem exists in a context of a nation with a significant portion of the world’s 2nd largest freshwater lake (Lake Victoria) and the source of the world’s longest river within its borders. Sadly, drought in a developing nation like Uganda is so acute because farmers rely so heavily on the rain. Less than 1% of agricultural land is irrigated. Farmers tell me how worried they are about this year’s rains as they couldn’t cope with another yield loss like last years.
Visiting the source of the longest river in the world, Jinja

Visiting the source of the longest river in the world, Jinja


Collecting water with cups from a drying stream

Collecting water with cups from a drying stream


Despite the intensity of African life such as the water problems, power issues and poverty, it is a privilege for our family to live here. I often complain about the problems, but I also realise that it helps us have a perspective on what are the most important things in life, such as faith, hope, health or clean water.

These days, signs are good that the rains are already on the way, earlier than normal. There has been rain in Kampala and winds have been picking up. Today, there is even some cloud, thunder and a few drops of rain.

All promising signs, and a reminder of peoples’ fragile dependence and smallness in a big universe.

A little girl collects water from a spring near the Congo border in better weather

A little girl collects water from a spring near the Congo border in better weather

Posted by africraigs 12:50 Archived in Uganda Comments (4)

Tis the Season to be Hot, Sticky and Dusty

sunny 32 °C

Christmas in Arua is different to a picture perfect Christmas scene.

Leaves change colour and fall from some of the trees as though it were autumn, but it is dry season, so instead it is sunny and hot. The land is turning a dusty yellow colour as the plants suffer without rain.

Just before Christmas, I was listening to the local radio station, Arua 1 in the car as the presenters were warning parents to keep a look-out for their children. They were telling parents that many children get lost during the Christmas period as they are left on their own for hours or even days. They are at risk of being defiled, robbed or even killed. The Christmas period is known as a risky time for robberies, people stealing because they also want to enjoy their Christmas period by eating meat or buying new clothes. The Lifestitches manager, Charles, was woken up at 3am last week because his goats and pigs were stolen. He took his dogs and chased the thieves until he was able to recover the animals. Obviously, he came in late for work in the morning.
Christmas tree shopping in Arua

Christmas tree shopping in Arua

Christmas trees for sale in Chinese shop

Christmas trees for sale in Chinese shop


A crazy WhatsApp message featuring a naked beheaded woman lying on the ground warns people to be careful who they mix with over Christmas. The lady had supposedly been hanging out with her boyfriend who turned out to be a witchdoctor. Weird, and very different to the cute Christmas messages we are used to seeing on adverts and TV.

Frustratingly, people here also have an expectation of being given something at Christmas and ‘Give me my Christmas’ is a phrase I despair to hear. On Christmas Eve at 8am, a charcoal seller called Rose knocked very persistently and loudly at the gate wanting some money for her Christmas because ‘madam Emma is my customer’.

Being out here, we miss the beauty of the town Christmas lights, the diversity of foods, or the cosiness of having a hot chocolate in a café when it is dark and cold outside. It is lovely to be share the festive season with friends and family and enjoy special places like winter wonderland in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh.

But, we don’t miss the pressure and expectation of the season in the UK where it feels like a commercial frenzy. Christmas is synonymous with frenetic shoppers, hectic shops and the pressure to have a ‘magical Christmas’ where the food, the setting and occasion needs to be perfect. It is a highly stressful time and hard to find a sense of ‘peace on earth’.

There is an intensity to the heat, dust and chaos of Christmas here too, but I am sure it is much closer to what the real Christmas story would have been like in the Middle East.

Christmas in Arua is different because it is simple.

We appreciate this as it helps us to concentrate on the true meaning of Christmas. It also helps us teach our children that truth without all the consumerist distractions. We are thankful for the slower pace of this time to be able to have more time to spend with friends. The highlight of the season and the year for ex-pats in Arua is the Christmas carol singing on the compound of a Catholic radio station, Radio Pacis on Christmas Eve and then digging into 25 flavours of ice cream organised and made by Sherry, the American director.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all...

Tucking in to ice cream

Tucking in to ice cream

Christmas Eve at Radio Pacis underneath their big Christmas tree

Christmas Eve at Radio Pacis underneath their big Christmas tree

Amelie being held aloft by a teacher at a Sunday school Christmas event

Amelie being held aloft by a teacher at a Sunday school Christmas event

Dancing old women in church on Christmas day

Dancing old women in church on Christmas day

Opening presents on Christmas Day

Opening presents on Christmas Day

Friends came over for pork on Boxing Day

Friends came over for pork on Boxing Day

Taking our workers out for Christmas meal

Taking our workers out for Christmas meal

Kids on a random zebra at the Christmas meal

Kids on a random zebra at the Christmas meal

ORA children this year get bars of soap, sugar and rice for Christmas

ORA children this year get bars of soap, sugar and rice for Christmas


Arua Christmas trade fair selling 2nd hand toys

Arua Christmas trade fair selling 2nd hand toys

Kids got their faces painted at the Arua Christmas trade fair

Kids got their faces painted at the Arua Christmas trade fair

Posted by africraigs 09:24 Archived in Uganda Comments (0)

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