Travel: Outreach through a sojourner’s eye

Every morning begins the same for me: jogging, coffee, a crossword puzzle and a flip through the papers on my mobile phone, writes Alex Taremwa

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Arua’s main street on a busy mid-morning. Photos by Alex Taremwa

But there have been forced changes to this routine in the past three months as I traversed the country ,courtesy of the Uganda Christian University (UCU) Career Development and Placement office inspiring young people in secondary schools about making holistic career choices.

To prepare for life on the road, I packed three novels, a camera, two lenses, sneakers and the journalist’s companions – notebook and pen. On the first day I was up at 5 am but still I missed my transport.

The rest of the team had left without me and 1,000 copies of the best university community newspaper in East and Central Africa, The Standard .

Unaware of my predicament, I walked into the office and made a mug of coffee, which I sipped as I skimmed through the social media news feed.

At 6:30am, I decided to reach out to one of the members on the career team only to be informed that they were already in Jinja! Fast forward, the vehicle made a U-turn picked me and we were soon Arua bound.

Most of this 12-hour journey was used to compensate for my lost sleep. I woke up after every hour or so to alert a friend I made on the journey, Joseph Omonya, to the need to eat something. Joseph slept for most of the journey!

At Karuma Falls I tried to take a picture of the beautiful waters but I was warned that it was illegal. How then can I market Uganda’s tourism features without showing visual evidence?

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The Karuma Falls on River Nile.

The threat of arrest notwithstanding, I managed to capture the scenery and soon I was asleep again. 

Kampala-Arua is the farthest I have ever travelled by road and my patience wore thin with every passing kilometre. At some point when Vianney woke up from a seemingly disturbing dream, he murmured, “210kms to go!” I wished he had stayed asleep, how discouraging!

At midnight we finally made our entry into Arua town and checked in at California Hotel where we camped for the next eight days. The hotel was food free, electricity free and soon would be water free but the people were the opposite; welcoming, warm and friendly.

By the power vested in me, by me, I conferred a PhD in ironing using charcoal, to one of the team members. Over the days I saw why electricity had little relevance in this area. Sadly the same did not apply to water.

The resource was so badly needed yet scarce! Possibly that is why every smallest water body in Arua is called a river? So I made a mental note to sensitise the populace there about the difference between stream, tributary and river next time I visit.

The hissing trees 

One morning we set out to visit Yivu High School. All of us, except our navigator, Gilbert Adrapi, did not know where we were headed. After driving 55 kms out of town with no sight of a school, we were perplexed.

“Gilbert, where is the school we are going to?” a team member inquired. “Just here,” Gilbert responded pointing ahead. The ‘just ahead’ turned out to be another 20kms away so we consoled ourselves with views of communal huts, fuel sold by the roadside in mineral water bottles, ox ploughing and others breastfeeding.

When we arrived at the school we were welcomed by a hissing sound. It was as though there were hundreds of snakes in the trees. 

The sound intensified in tandem with the speed of wind. I then noticed that the sound came from a species of trees the school had planted in the compound. Since I did not have a lot of time to learn names of the trees, I named them – white explorer style – the ‘hissing trees of Arua’.

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UCU staff at the DRC-Uganda border, Vurra

 

There is boundary line between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is found at Vurra, in West Nile.

After visiting a school close to the border, the team unanimously agreed to cross the border on foot. We thought this would be a walk in the park, but then again we had not factored in the formalities required for the stroll.

The welcome on the Ugandan side was customary. We were ushered into packing, shown into the border police station for formal introductions. After we made our intentions known, a young man in his mid-20s offered two things free of charge: to walk us to the no-man’s land and to inform us that no pictures, sneezing or short calls were allowed across the line without a nod from the DRC officials. Talk of freedom and good neighborliness!

Not much fazed, we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless. Standing on that land not claimed by anyone, we sipped our beverages and felt like international free men and women. The DRC officials later allowed us a brief tour of their side of the border, but still insisted that I take no photos and as a law-abiding fellow, I obliged.

Ox-tail and walking stick matooke 

We later strolled into O&S Restaurant for lunch and I immediately scanned the menu items and corresponding prices. There I landed on this rare item, the oxtail, which in all honesty I was afraid to try but cunningly asked a colleague to try so I could see what it actually looked like.

I signalled the waitress and ordered for the ‘normal stuff’; beef stew matooke and rice and then switched my attention back to the television. Soon

Vianney’s ox-tail arrived and I remember saying that it would take him two hours to clear the plate. “That cannot be just a tail,” I whispered to a neighbour who was busy charging his phone.

My order arrived just in time to save my taste buds, which were now about to lose the patience strugggle. However, I noticed the matooke looked strange. When I atempted a bite, the matooke was so hard and dry that I could use one as a walking stick if I wanted to.

After one or two fingers, I settled for enyasa (millet paste) and anyoya (a boiled mixture of maize and beans).

The team left Arua town at 5:30am in order to be in Kampala before nightfall. This was in a bid to get a few days of rest before heading for eastern Uganda, the next stop on our regional tour.

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Eastern Uganda: The writer at Nyero Rock Paintings, Kumi district.

Nyero paintings; a blend of God and the Batwa 

My geography lessons had introduced me to the Nyero Rock paintings in theory. But I had never been to there physically. So on our way to Serere, I asked the team if we could make a stop-over in Kumi to see the famous rock paintings dating to before 1250 AD. The paintings, largely attributed to the Batwa indigenous people, are a great tourist attraction.

They stretch out over six different rocks but we only managed to visit three, one of which is believed to be for fertility. After feeding my eyes on the rocks and how meticulously they are placed, I was convinced that they were really one of God’s great creations.

The following day was spent in Kapchorwa, a hilly and equally rocky area that forces roads to snake through the hills at the mercy of the driver. 

It takes brave souls to withstand the sharpness of the corners and the chills they send down one’s spine. The Sebei region, unlike West Nile, has good matooke to the extent that some of the team members who had been brought up in predominantly matooke growing areas bought a few bunches to bring home.

The matooke might have been good but I could not say the same about the roads. Our transport came to a standstill in Bukwo District through to Chemwaniya High School when the vehicle failed to climb a slippery hill on a dry sunny day. Extra manpower had to be used to enable us make it to our destination on time. Sadly, we did not stop by the Sipi Falls but from a distance I could hear the water roll over the rocks.

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