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Northwest Uganda

December 6, 2009

We head north from Kampala. For those who have not experienced the circus that is travelling by public bus in a developing country, let me try to describe. The mission begins with trying to reach the bus station, and this crucially means the correct bus station from the several that operate in most cities, which is often located out of town. It’s important to arm yourself with the name of your destination and the name of the company that someone reliable has assured you goes there. Getting to the bus station involves taking another form of transport and, once there, confronting with strength and resilience the hoards of opportunistic characters that greet the unusual and very obvious arrival of a Westerner. At this stage, it is important to keep hold of your bags, your temper and your sanity, and to keep sight of each other, while persisting in the increasingly desperate conviction that the bus, company and destination you desire not only exists but that you are determined to go only there and that way.

Eventually, there will be an admission that the town you desire to travel to has not burned down after all, that the bus company is still in business and that the bus is in fact nearby. Getting on the bus with the number of bags we seem to have collected, plus assorted people who insist on following us just to get in the way, is itself a challenge, but something that has to be done at breakneck speed because the ticket boy will be telling us that the bus is about to leave this minute!

Once seated, usually on some sort of half seat shared by plenty of other people, the rest of the bus turns to stare at us, and we end up chatting about the usual things: where we come from (London. ‘Obama!’ No, that’s America. We have Gordon Brown. ‘Huh?’), which football team we support (Actually, we’re not really into football. ‘Huh?’), and so on… Then, the bus is swarmed (as it is every time it’s stationary) with a competing mob of every kind of salesman/woman. holding there wares aloft. These can and do include everything you can possibly imagine – in fact, it’s probably easier to jump on a bus to do your shopping than trawl a shopping centre. Examples of items on sale on our bus from Kampala include: a rack of shoes; crickets and other insects in various states of undress; worming tablets; a football; biscuits; bags of a yoghurt drink; bed sheets; hankies; live chickens held by the feet; sugar cane; and a great deal more.

It will become clear after half an hour or so that the bus is not leaving with any urgency, at which time, you can either pointlessly ask everyone from the passengers to the driver for some sort of departure time, or resign yourself to waiting endlessly. I usually flit between these two exhausting states.

A few hours after the bus was supposed to leave, by which time you have settled into your uncomfortable seats and found the least painful way of crushing yourself into your bags, everyone will suddenly start leaving the bus. By the time you’ve figured out what’s happening – the passengers are being moved to another bus – the decent seats have all gone and you’re forced to take whatever’s left.

Eventually, the bus will leave, if we’re lucky, and the most uncomfortable journey of our life thus far will begin. The journey to Massindi from Kampala is particularly painful because a large stretch of the road is striped with high, hard speedhumps at intervals of a few metres. Each hump jolts us so much we shout out in pain. The humps are there because the government is planning to tarmac the road, which is to become a major route to the oilfields of Lake Albert. Oil was discovered here a couple of years ago and now four companies, including the UK’s Tullow Oil and Canada’s Heritage Oil, are exploring the site. It seems that the field slopes under the lake, which is shared by DR Congo and Uganda, towards the Ugandan side. So, if Uganda begins extraction (it’s not clear how or when that will happen because apparently the crude is exceptionally solid), it will drain the DRC’s share. I imagine that diplomatic relations between the two countries will not be enhanced by this. War?

So far, the oil exploration seems to be following textbook environmental standards, conservationists here tell me. This is in contrast to the hydropower plans the government is pursuing, which have been mired in corruption and environmental and social scandals, including a large project planned at Jinja, the source of the Nile.

Our bus journeys north past internal displacement camps housing the thousands of people seeking a haven from the insurgency that kicked off here in 1986 and has so far claimed thousands of lives. The so-called Lord’s Resistance Army has been chased out of Uganda now (it’s moved to CAR), although disarmament is still underway in the northern, worst hit regions.

The violent conflict, led by still-at-large LRA chief Joseph Kony, has murdered, tortured and brutalised so many in the north that the majority of the people we meet have been affected in some way and have yet to rebuild their lives. People are now being resettled back in the villages, but it’s a difficult, slow process. Some return to find they have no land or farms to work after a more than 20 year absence. Others, such as the Acholi people, are reluctant to return because they have family members who died and were buried in the safety camps and, according to their cultural tradition, families must live close by to their family graves. In some circumstances, graves can be moved, but this requires a ceremonial ritual involving killing two goats, and which NGO or UN agency will spend thousands on supplying goats for ceremonial slaughter? So the people don’t move back, land containing graves cannot be farmed and the LRA’s victims continue to be dependent on food aid.

Some people, though, are simply too traumatised to return, like Ojera Christopher’s elderly mother, who despite all evidence of the security situation, won’t return to her village for fear of being gunned down. Ojera, who was a child ‘supporter’ of the LRA, is trying to come to terms with his involvement and has gone back to college to study conflict resolution. He is an intelligent and articulate fellow with a great deal of humanity, and he regails me with horrifying tales of village life during the 80s and 90s.

Things are better now, he says, tapping his gun thoughtfully: “I don’t need to use this.” He hopes for a peaceful life for his children and his 8 siblings that he helps support. I raise my eyebrows at the number – that’s nothing, he tells me. “One man in my village has seven wives and 52 children.”

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