It feels like a distant memory already, since I was in Heathrow airport, questioning: if I would be granted a visa to enter Uganda; worrying that my bags would be too heavy (after multiple re-packing attempts and panics back home) meaning I could receive a mighty fine or be left with the dilemma of what else I could possibly remove from them; and wondering why on earth I was leaving, when I was feeling so incredibly pained to be saying a goodbye in the physical form to people.
I have since lost track of what day it is, or the amount of time that has passed since I ‘broke-up’ for summer from my workplace of the past six years, and the students that I cared for deeply. It feels like a distant memory and almost like it never happened.
In the time that I have been in Uganda, I have already spoken to so many people and made connections and exchanged phone numbers that my network here has already begun to feel like a family. And I havent even started work yet.
I came here to learn. To expand. To witness. To grow. To explore. And it has already taught me so much. Through all of this, I have also cried inside my mind many times, and for now I continue to have nightmares, waking up screaming and in desperate terror for my life. So, I am growing; I am literally experiencing “growing pains”!
I have made it my purpose and intention since arriving, to talk to everyone that I encounter, from the guesthouse staff, to the drivers of the many types of vehicles I have been on, to the children that seem to be in my every view, to the gun-wielding security guards all around. And I have learnt a lot. In fact, I met a man recently who has lived here for four years, who told me that he has learnt more about Uganda through talking with me, than he has in the whole time he has been here.
So, let me share with you some of the things I have learnt, through the many stories I have been graced with from people…
- Uganda has a potted history and I have heard tales of woe, wonder and all that goes in between. In every region there are a multitude of languages, customs, traditions, dress-styles, mannerisms, styles of music and different versions even of home-brew (made from the cane of sore-gum, aka the drink named ‘porridge’ or from the fruit of bananas, ‘waragi’ for example). Everywhere that I have been to thus far, I have found a way to chat with the locals and hear their story. And there have also been times when people have found me and asked if I will listen.
- I have learnt that village people maintain an almost natural border between the wild animals of the national parks and their own homes, by keeping bee-hives of all things. Apparently elephants, being the biggest creature of the parks and thus the biggest risk to the lands as a consequence, are terrified of bees! If a bee were to get up into their trunk they are entirely unable to remove it and it would cause them great suffering. So whereas there are arbitrary gates to pass through for cars and people in order to access the parks, there are no actual fences aside from the natural demarcations made by the rivers. Which of course many of the animals can cross should they choose too anyhow.
- Each tribe in Uganda has a name, such as the Batwa, the Bachiga and so on. And assigned to each tribe is a totem. This means a spirit animal. And when the tribe goes to hunt, this is the animal they are allowed to kill. Another tribe must stick with their own totem animal, thus if two tribes hunt together, unless they share the same totem, then the hunt will be separate in this way.
- Ugandans may use pet names, as well as the christian names that make for easy communication in a more globally expanding business world here (this is certainly the case for the Tooro people, and instead of greeting each other with “hello“, the greeting will be Kitoro for “what is your pet name?“). These each have their own meanings and certain names cannot be given to the other sex. (So far I have been assigned Akiki, meaning an ambassador of the people, leading those who need a voice to unite or guide them, and pioneering for the truth of these people to be heard).
- Ugandans may also be given a name which relates to their positioning within the family line, e.g. second son of the mother of…
- As for parents, some Ugandans will refer to their father as “the man who my mother calls my father“, and apparently it is not uncommon that on their mother’s deathbed, she will then tell them their biological dad is in fact Uncle so and so.
- The common name for warthogs in Uganda is Pumba, and the park rangers will refer to sightings of Pumba not a warthog! (This tickled me! And it was hard not to keep hearing replays of various ‘Lion King’ songs in my head as we continued on our game drives!)
- Young people in Uganda have a mixed bag of luck and opportunity it seems. I have had people give me their driving licence and beg for me to provide them with a job, telling me that they are blocked from jobs that they are qualified for due to family members being given first refusal. Or I have been handed resumes in the straight or a plethora of business cards, as it would seem that almost everyone is a tour guide, a driver, an IT whizz and a tailor. Alternatively some people have told me there is absolutely no need for a Ugandan ever to get a job, as in the villages there is food aplenty and accomodation will always be there.
- When visiting Lake Bunyoni (the place of little birds), I have learnt of tales that make my stomach turn or my imagination run wild. And yes, there were birds absolutely everywhere (some of the birds there were in fact the smallest I have ever seen), yet I have also found that birds are the dominant sound in the air wherever I go, regardless of morning or night.
- On the lake, there is something called ‘Punishment island’ – a tiny island in the middle of the lake that has a single tree standing in its centre. Unmarried pregnant women were taken there (until the 50/60s when the missionairies arrived) and left for dead. The women would cling to the tree until they were no longer able to. [It is apparently only very recently that swimming has begun to be taught].
- There is another one called ‘Upside down island’. As the story goes, the tribe living in this island were enjoying a spectacle of a meal when a haggard and dirty looking woman appeared to them. Without communicating verbally, there was an instant collective agreement that she was not to be helped and not a single person even acknowledged her. She begged for food and shelter but was denied both. The people were unsettled by her presence however, and decided to provide her with a canoe in order to leave the island. They sent a young boy with with her, to ensure that she could paddle away and return to the mainland. Once there, the young boy returned to the canoe, as the woman told him “I will see you again“. Not understanding what this meant or why she was saying it, the boy returned home. However, when he reached the island, he found before him a mass of soil and roots only. The island was upside down and all those who had been there were dead. The boy had no choice but to return to the woman. Wherein she became his mother and they lived out their days together. No-one has ever lived on the island again due to the fear that this black magic could bring them. (When canoeing past it, there was an eery feel to it, and a very surprising appearance of two marooned goats who almost jumped into the reeds through what seemed to be delight at seeing another form of living creature).
- Other tales I have learnt have been from books, or from sitting around a fire (another Ugandan tradition is that a fire can only be sat around by those who have stories to share. Men would meet with younger boys when guidance was needed for example. I was told, it is how we learn, how we share, how we sit together. This feels similiar to an older version of the UK and I like this concept a lot. It also reminded me very much of delightfully happy times spent around fires just before I came here, especially the very last one, wherein I could hear the laughter of my mum resonating in the air, whilst I was making a drink in the kitchen. It also means I have been racking my brains ever since, for stories that I can tell). [What story would you share?]
- I have read tales of the Batwa people, a minority village people who live in the forests but whom no longer have forests with which to call home. One of my particular favourites is:
- The tale of Nsangi (or possibly another name, I can’t recall exactly). A young girl named Nsangi lived in a cave with her mother. There were gorillas in the area that would lap up a meal of a small child, thus the mother refused to let Nsangi leave the cave when she would go out to the fields to farm and collect food. She would roll a huge rock over the entrance of the cave as she left, and told Ndangi only to open it upon hearing the voice of her other singing to her. A smart and cunning gorilla however had noticed this ritual and was eager for the taste of the small child. He waited until an opportune time and approached the entrance of the cave, singing the mother’s song. Nsangi however noticed that the voice was too deep for it to be her mother’s, and thus refused to push back the rock. The gorilla was forced to leave empty-handed and disappointed. Soon he came to realise the flaw in his plan however and began to practice the sounds of the mother’s voice as she repeatedtly sang the words upon her return each day. Such that, on his next attempt, the gorilla was able to sing to Nsangi perfect imitation and Nsangi was fooled. She rolled back the rock and was devoured in an instant. When the mother returned home she realised what had happened and wept. She sought out the village elders and and told them of her woe. They set in motion that a hunt for the guilty gorilla would take place and when he was found, they were to cut off his little finger. The hunt ensued and upon the finding of the ten gorillas, the judgement began. The first nine gorillas proved clear innocence and thus were left alone. The tenth and remaining gorilla could not hide his guilt however and the men chopped his little finger off. From which Nsangi appeared once more. The gorilla was chased away. [And in typical Batwan folk story-telling, this tales ends… “And this is what I saw“].
From all of this and so much more, my mind swims with different stories, of old, of now, and of imagination. I am absolutely adoring the chance to soak them up, laugh about them, ask and get more details about them and so on. I am reading an intriguing book named ‘Things Fall Apart‘ by an acclaimed African writer, Chinua Achebe, which fills my mind with even more tales of magic and tribal tradition. And I am sharing my own stories, with other travellers, companions, and friends of new and of old.
I yearn to simultaneously sit by a fire back home and exchange words with those deep in my heart. And I enjoy the power of the internet in order to at least do this in short form, through the magic of technology that allows my voice to be heard, and that of others to be sent to me.
Home is wherever I am in this moment and the adventure of all of this grows. Just this morning I sat in a birdsong filled garden, with the smell of eucalyptus pentrating the air, as two gorgeous Ugandan children starting bringing me flowers (which are now in my hair). They spoke to me in a language that I could not make out, but together we spoke the same words and we joyously whiled away time spent playing in the sun.
Tonight I will sleep under the stars, after another beautiful swim in the crystal clear waters of Kyninanga crater lake. And I will continue to learn more. I am now in Fort Portal, in a town that is surrounded by some of the earth’s most amazing collection of beauty – waterfalls, volcanoes, crater lakes, mountains, national parks filled with wild animals, birds full of songs seeming to come from the voices of angels. And the guesthouse I have been staying in, Rwenzori View, is divine. Breakfast and evening meals are spent all sat together around a big table, where even more tales can be told, and friends can be made. What a blessing this is.