How are we really doing?

April 21, 2009

A few people have asked how we’re really doing. Rest assured that we’re doing our best to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, in our blogs. Of course we tend to emphasize the more interesting or adventurous bits, but we’re trying to give you a complete picture.

Temperatures haven’t been too hot in the places we’ve been so far. Day time highs are typically in the 25 – 32 Celsius range. We haven’t spent any time near the coast of the Indian Ocean, which tends to be hotter. The inland places we’ve been to are usually higher in elevation and therefore cooler. It is the rainy season, although that hasn’t caused us any difficulties, as it usually rains at night or for only short periods in the day.

We’re staying in budget or lower mid-range hotels, typically costing from $10-20 Canadian per night for a double room including breakfast. We often get a double bed, but sometimes there are only twin beds. The rooms usually have a private bathroom, which is rarely clean, but is fine if you try not to touch anything. We’ve gotten used to cold showers, as hot water is available only about half of the time. In Tanzania recently we’ve had a few cockroaches sharing our bathrooms, but they normally don’t come out until after we’ve gone to bed. It is possible to stay in much cheaper places if we wanted. Rooms in budget places with shared bathrooms are often under $10 Canadian. The cheapest room we stayed at was in a Catholic seminary in Rwanda, which was $5 Canadian for both of us.

Our room typically includes breakfast which is usually terrible. It’s almost always a ‘plain omelet’ (which is really just a fried egg) with white bread, dry and untoasted. Occasionally we’ll get a bit of fruit or some margarine for the bread, but more often not.

We’re both getting plenty of calories, but the East African diet isn’t well balanced. A lot of starches (potatoes, rice, or plantain), and just about everything else is deep fried in a dark, murky oil. We are often offered or provided with a small salad, but we try to stay away from them. Beverages are mainly water, with a soda pop in the afternoon and beer in the evening.

We’ve had most of the common travel ailments. Diane has had lots of mosquito bites, two scraped elbows, a bruised butt, two colds, a nagging cough, a sprained ankle (or perhaps a small bone break), diarrhea, and several upset stomachs. Patrick has had one cold, a sore foot, intermittent hay fever, a scraped shin and some strange bite marks on his forearm that went away after about two weeks.

We’re getting plenty of sleep, though it is often interrupted by noise. The mattresses are usually made of foam, which means they are typically firm but not that comfortable. Most places have mosquito nets, but they often have holes, which we patch with duct tape (even Canadian man’s best friend), or use our own net if they’re really bad.

On a positive note, we watch a lot less television that we used to. Our room may occasionally have a TV, but there is usually only one or two channels, and they are probably not in English.

Patrick is starting to relax a bit, but would still like to see and do more than time allows. He’d like to be getting more exercise, but isn’t doing much about it. We do a lot of walking.

Diane tends to get stressed when we transition to a new location. A combination of the scary transportation, and a fear of the unknown. She relaxes once she’s seen that the next place isn’t so bad, and in many ways, is a lot like the last place.

Reading this back, it seems rather bleak, but it’s really not as bad as it sounds, once you get used to it. It’s a bit like camping indoors, and eating out in greasy spoon restaurants. Every place has something unique and positive about it, and there are plenty of opportunities wherever we go.

trHotel Burundi

April 21, 2009

Do you know the line from the Eagles’ song “Hotel California”, which says, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”? Well, that’s what our last week has been like. Our objective is to get to Zambia, but we’re still working on it.

We decided to head south from Rwanda into the little traveled country of Burundi. Our bus trip took about eight hours, which once again had its usual set of adventures (we will tell you more about that later). We arrived at the bus stop at 7 AM for our 8 AM departure and we barely got seats together. We ended up sitting across the aisle from one another, with a fold down jump seat in between us, and our backpacks squished in between our legs and the seats ahead of us. The bus was completely full, with a person in every seat, and luggage stacked in every available space. This included the space in front of the only door, which was stacked high with suitcases and boxes.

The bus took us through the beautiful green hills of Rwanda. The roads were paved, and the driver drove at a reasonable speed, except for some of the downhill sections when it was raining. As is typical on East African bus journeys, the bus stopped frequently to drop off and pick up passengers. In the town of Butare, about eight more people boarded our already full bus. This involved a complicated ballet of removing all the luggage blocking the door, passing it out the window (with the passengers’ assistance), thereby allowing entry. People were squeezed into every available space. Our row of four seats held eight people, plus our backpacks, and another six pieces of luggage. Luckily, many of the other people were children.

Because they do not charge for children to accompany a parent, most women travel with at least two children and luggage, all of which try to occupy the same seat. Young babies are breastfed while an older sibling stands on top of the luggage between the mother’s legs. The children are amazingly well behaved, almost too passive, as they are crammed into the most contorted of positions. In many cases, we felt the need to lift a child’s head or remove the fabric covering its face for fear of injury, while the overburdened mother struggled with everything.

It is quite common for children to be placed into any available space, including on the laps of others. Patrick had a young boy sleeping up against him, and Diane had at least two different children on her lap. She was quite fine with this, until she realized that one little girl was covered with small bumps, which could have been scabies, chicken pox, or perhaps bed bug or flea bites. The same little girl then starting throwing up corn onto Diane.

We crossed the border into Burundi, made it to the capital city Bujumbura, and found cheap but reasonable lodgings in a Christian guest house over the Easter weekend. We began making our plans to continue our journey south, hoping to take a combination of two ferries down Lake Tanganyika to Zambia. Unfortunately, the first ferry, which was supposed to go to take us Kigoma Tanzania, hasn’t been running since the civil war ended last year. We confirmed this on Monday, after a failed trip to the port on Sunday afternoon.

We set out for the port with the only other travelers that we had met in Bujumbura, some newlyweds from Toronto who had been volunteering in Uganda for the past three months. Terence is a recently graduated medical doctor, and Natalie a social worker. It was raining heavily and very humid, and the small taxi had no defroster, requiring Terence to constantly wipe the inside of the windshield with a cloth so the driver could see. We made it to within a couple of blocks of the port, when the car began to fill with water from the flooded streets. We were sloshing around in the back seat, while the driver beached his car up on some high ground, and then sat there, saying nothing.

After about 20 minutes of sitting there in the foggy car, Patrick and Terence decided to try to wade to the port, which was visible in the distance. They made it to the port gates through the thigh deep water, feeling for each step, to avoid stepping into a hole or open sewer masked by the murky water. Patrick was thoroughly enjoying himself until they came across a huge syringe with uncovered needle that had washed up on the side of the road.

The port was closed, so they returned to the car, and then headed in the other direction to check for an escape route. The water was less deep that way, and they returned to convince the driver that he could make it back to town safely. Back at the guest house, we decided to pay the driver his agreed fare, even though he never really got us to our destination.

The following day, we went to the tourist office to enquire about a boat, and the head of the tourist office took us in his own car to the port, where we met with the port director. This gentleman has been the head of the tourist office in Bujumbura since 1991, when he returned after completing his master’s degree in tourism in Europe. The office has been open, but there have been no tourists for the last 18 years! The port director confirmed that there was no ferry but that we could perhaps go on a cargo ship. Like many of the buses we’ve experienced, cargo ships leave when they are full, and it isn’t possible to accurately predict when this might occur, so we abandoned our search for a boat, and pursued an overland option.

We arranged for a car for the next day to take us down the coast and through the mountains to the Tanzanian border. The driver was a young man named ‘Jamie’, who spoke French but no English, and did his best to make sure we were looked after. Over breakfast, he told us how his mother and relatives had been killed in the war, and how as a child he fled with his younger siblings into the forest, and then back and forth between neighbouring countries to avoid a similar fate.

Nearing the Burundian border, we stopped in the last town to get an exit stamp in our passports. Terence and Natalie hadn’t kept the receipt they were given upon entry to Burundi, which it turns out wasn’t actually a receipt, but the Burundian transit visa we had each purchased. Of course, no one had told us this. Luckily we found ours, and we received an exit stamp without incident. However, the obnoxious border guard took advantage of their predicament to elicit a bribe of about of $10 Canadian, but not before making them wait about thirty minutes, during which time he accepted bribes from a bunch of Africans, presumably for some other spurious reason. Jamie the driver literally got down on his knees to beg the immigration officer to accept the bribe and give them the required exit stamp.

When we reached the actual border about 18 kilometers further on, Jamie convinced the gate guard to let him continue with the car through the ‘no man’s land’ between the borders, on the condition that he provide the car registration to the guard to ensure that he would return. We made it to the remote Tanzanian border post, purchased transit visas, and then arranged follow-on transit to Kigoma. Of course, the only option was another bus!

This bus trip took about four hours, through beautiful rolling hills. It was accompanying by the usual cramped conditions, and the constant reorganizing of the bus at each stop to cram in the latest people and their belongings. On this trip, they included large bags of grain, a big set of speakers, and many boxes and bags. Once everyone is loaded, the bus begins to move, at which time the driver’s assistant begins to collect the fares. Because he can’t move from his cramped position, the money is passed forward and back by the passengers. There are no tickets or posted prices, so there is often loud negotiation between parties at opposite ends of the bus. On this trip, a young man who wasn’t willing to pay the requested fare was thrown off the bus along with his belongings (except one item which was held for ransom until he paid a small amount for the portion of the trip he had ridden.

When we reached a hill that was too steep, we would all get out to walk up the hill, so the bus could make it up. When the left front tire of the bus blew, we all got out again so they could change it. Seated ahead of us was a doctor from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who told us that the driver had received a telephone call that a bus one hour ahead of us on the same road had been robbed by bandits. Diane heard this, and kept her cool, because the alternate to proceeding was to sit out on an open hill top with a flat tire and wait for the bandits to come to us!

We made it to Kigoma, and found cheap accommodations in the city. Perhaps too cheap though, because our room had a cockroach in the bathroom and another bar outside the bars on the window. Luckily the music only went until midnight, so Patrick and Terence drank beer in the bar until closing, telling their wives that they were guarding the bedroom windows from the other side.

The next morning we were woken before 8 AM by an immigration official with the hotel register who wanted to check our passports. After complying to his request, he then gave us a lecture about not showing our passports to anyone who doesn’t show his ID first, because there are conmen and thieves about.

We continued our search for transportation to Zambia. The next boat, which was supposed to leave on Wednesday, was now only running every second week, and this was the wrong week. The train was full for the next ten days. We were both frustrated, and Patrick decided that we needed to do something drastic, so we call the airport, and were told that there was a flight leaving for Dar es Salam within the hour. We got a cab, raced to a bank for money, then headed out to the airport in the middle of a rain storm. The road to the airport was unpaved, deeply rutted, muddy, and mostly underwater, but the taxi driver got us there in his Toyota Corolla. Unfortunately, there was only one seat left on the plane, so we headed back to town dejectedly. We walked to several hotels trying to find a decent one, as we were now facing a stay of at least two more days in Kigoma, and finally found something. Diane was close to breaking, but held in there. Once she had a room, a cold shower, and some lunch, she perked up again.

We did eventually fly out of Kigoma two days later, and asked our taxi driver there to stop at the train station so we could investigate trains back to the southwest of Tanzania (near Zambia). Trains leave twice a week, but luck was on our side this time. There was a train scheduled to depart immediately, actually it was overdue, and we could still get a first class compartment.

The 24 hour train ride to Mbeya was actually quite pleasant. It was loud and difficult to sleep, but the scenery was beautiful as we crossed the full width of Tanzania. There was food on board, which took forever to be prepared, but was edible, and there was beer, which could be cold if you timed it right. The latrines were basic but not disgusting, and we even took a cold shower out of a bare pipe sticking out of the bathroom wall. All in all, it was quite pleasant, and not a bad way to spend Diane’s birthday.

We arrived in Mbeya at about 4 PM, still with time left to celebrate Diane’s birthday. After finding a hotel, we headed for the best restaurant in town. Actually, it’s 20 kilometers out of town at a coffee plantation, but it was worth the drive. They had a lovely view at sunset, good food, and wine by the glass. This was the first time Diane had drunk wine in over two months, which is a new record. Of course, it’s had to find time to drink wine when you’re busy drinking beer! Unfortunately, we were too tired to stay for coffee, which Diane also hasn’t had (other than instant coffee) for over a month.

Anyhow, after a week of trying, we’re now within striking distance of Zambia. We’ll let you know how it goes.

P.S. We promise this will be the last bus story, unless something particularly heinous happens.

Observations about Burundi

April 21, 2009
  • Burundi has experienced a similar history to Rwanda. They were both German then Belgian colonies, and both have experienced civil wars and ethnic violence along Hutu-Tutsi lines.
  • The violence in Burundi continued until very recently, with the last rebel group laying down its arms in 2008.
  • Burundi is the most francophone of the East African countries. French is spoken widely and English is rare.
  • There are very few tourists in Burundi. We spent several days in the capital city Bujumbura, and only saw a handful of other Caucasians.
  • The roads of the capital city are mostly unpaved, turning them into a muddy mess when it rains.
  • The people of Burundi were very friendly and helpful, and seemed glad to have us there.
    Burundi claims to be the place where Stanley found Dr. Livingstone in 1871 and uttered the famous words, “Dr. Livingstone I presume?”

Observations about Rwanda

April 13, 2009
  • Rwanda is known at the ‘Land of 1000 Hills’. It is a lush green country, with many mountains, almost all of which are cultivated by hand in a beautiful patchwork.
  • It is expensive. Prices in the capital, Kigale, are about the same as Vancouver. Imported goods are a lot more expensive. e.g. small jar of peanut butter $10 Canadian, chocolate bar $2.50 Canadian.
  • Plastic bags are illegal. Stores give out paper bags. This is a great improvement over Kenya and Uganda, where cheap plastic bags litter the streets. Wire fences are clogged with bags blown there by the wind.
  • Things are very orderly and lawful. This is in strong contrast, and is perhaps and attempt to compensate for a violent past. There is little corruption, and it is strongly resisted. Police that pull you over actually hand out tickets, rather than collecting bribes. Motorcycle taxis are licensed and marked as such; both drive and passenger must wear a helmet. Drivers generally follow the rules of the road, including stop signs, street lights, and cross walks. All these things are very different that Uganda and Kenya, where corruption is rampant.
  • Other than Kinyarwanda (the local language), the primary language spoken here is French. Patrick’s Grade 11 French has been put to good use. English is also an official language, but is used less. All the signs and menus are in French.
  • Rwanda decided to stop teaching French in schools last year. English is the common language of the other member countries of the East African Community, and the primary language of international trade and tourism, and it was decided that teaching three primary languages was too much. Rwanda is cutting its Francophone connections.
  • The ‘Hotel Rwanda’ from the movie of the same name is located in Kigale, the capital city, and is actually called ‘Hotel des Milles Collines’, which means ‘Hotel of 1000 Hills’.
  • The roofs in the country are tiled rather than having corrugated metal or thatch.
  • Diane Fossey, the heroine of ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ researched the Mountain Gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of northern Rwanda. She is buried there.
  • Rwanda is very safe. Like in Cairo, we can walk at night in the dark city streets without apprehension.
  • Rwanda has come a very long way from its civil war and genocide in the early 1990’s, farther than Uganda has developed in a longer time period.

Genocide – by Patrick, April 7th

April 10, 2009

Today is my birthday. It is also the 15th anniversary of the first day of the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994. On this day, one group of Rwandans began killing another group, and within three months over one million people had been murdered.

We went to the Kigale Memorial Center, a place dedicated to remembering the genocide. It explains the history of the genocide, with words and with pictures. There are videos where survivors of the genocide give their testimony. There is a room containing the photographs of many victims. There is a room containing the skulls and femurs of a few hundred victims, and where their names are read out loud on a continuous audio track. There is a room dedicated to the children of the genocide. Under each child’s picture is their name and some personal information about them – their favorite food, their favorite pastime, their hero, their last words, and how they were murdered.

Outside are the mass graves of over 200,000 people. No individual markings. Just huge cement blocks, each covering the combined remains of tens of thousands of people.

This morning we went to the national memorial service in a suburb of Kigale. Along with tens of thousands of Rwandans, we listened to speakers and singers share their perspective on the genocide. Much of it was in Kinyarwanda, the Rwandan language, but some parts were in English. The feeling and the intention was self-evident.

First was a man missing an arm who gave his testimony. His wife stood by his side while he spoke. Giving testimony is an important part of the healing process for victims.

An American man who lived in Kigale at the time of the genocide spoke. He explained how he and his wife made the difficult decision that she and their children would leave the country for safety, but that he would remain. He explained how ordinary, unarmed Rwandans stood at his gate, and protected him from men armed with guns and machetes, using words alone. They spoke the names of the armed men they knew, and talked of how they knew one another, and how their children played together. In this rare case, it was enough to keep them alive. In most cases, it wasn’t. Now the American man speaks to hundreds of American school children each week, educating them on the horror of genocide.

Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda, spoke of the need to continue to move forward, and to build a new future for Rwanda. He also spoke about the need to remember, and the people who try to deny that the Rwandan genocide occurred, or who claim that Rwanda now exploits the guilt of the world to its benefit.

Many people in the audience were crying. For those who lived through it, who were injured, or who lost loved ones, the genocide is still very recent and very real. What I wasn’t prepared for was the screams. Some people’s anguish was so great that they began to wail. Many were helped away by Red Cross medics or other attendees. This was not isolated, and overlapping cries of anguish continued throughout as a tormented accompaniment to the proceedings.

This week is an annual week of remembrance in Rwanda. Each day work stops at noon, and communities come together to talk about the genocide. There is a different theme each day. How to build a better future. How to make sure this never happens again. How to help the many children who were left parentless, and who, even today, continue to lead their households.

I knew that a genocide had occurred in Rwanda. I had no appreciation of how horrific it was. I still don’t understand how a country of nine million people that murdered one million of its own citizens can move on. Many of the people who live here participated in the genocide, people who we interact with each day. Many others did nothing to try to stop it. All are guilty, but only a few can be prosecuted.

There are many victims here. This is visible in the many people with disabilities and scars that we see on the streets, and in the faces of those who have injuries other than physical ones. They are the ones who survived. Somehow they continue on, co-existing with their neighbours who tried to kill them, or who abandoned them. How they can get up everyday, and go about their business, and look into the eyes of those who murdered their families and friends is something that I have great difficulty understanding.

There are other genocide memorials in Rwanda. A church where ten thousand people were murdered. A school where hundreds of students, including many small children were killed. In this case, as if to ensure that no one can ever deny the genocide occurred, the bodies of the victims including the children were left in place, covered with lime to preserve them. We decided not to go to these places.

It was a difficult way to spend my birthday, but I’m glad to have been here.

For those who don’t know the history of the genocide in Rwanda, there is a brief summary below.

Rwanda was a German colony until its defeat in World War I, when it was granted to Belgium. The Belgians played on ethnic differences to divide and conquer the population. Based on questionable religious and anthropological theories, they divided the population into two main tribes – Hutus (‘hoo-tooz’), the majority of about 85%, and Tutsis (‘toot-seez’), the minority. In some cases, the assignment was done based on the number of cattle a family owned. The Belgians concentrated power in the hands of the minority Tutsis, to keep control over the Hutus. After Rwandan independence in 1962, the Hutu majority came to power, and retaliatory policies were introduced to put restrictions on Tutsis. Inter-tribal tensions continued, with periodic outbreaks of violence. In 1990 a civil war erupted between factions drawn along tribal lines. This continued until a ceasefire and power sharing agreement was being established by the President of Rwanda in 1994, but some in the Hutu majority were dissatisfied with this.

On the Rwandan President’s return from a peace conference on the night of April 6th, 1994, his plane was shot down while landing at the Kigale airport. Extremists among the Hutu dominated political and military ranks began to execute a well-planned final solution to the Tutsi issue. On April 7th, the moderate Hutu Prime Minister was also murdered along with ten UN peacekeepers from Belgium, prompting Belgium to withdraw its troops entirely, thereby making it possible for the genocide to begin.

Rwandan army and Hutu militia groups called ‘Interahamwe’ began a systematic campaign of looting, torturing, raping, and killing Tutsis across the country. Tutsis were executed wherever they were found by shooting, but more commonly with machetes or clubs, along with any Hutus suspected of sympathizing with them. Tens of thousands were murdered each day, and the streets piled up with bodies. Those who took refuge in schools or churches were executed nevertheless; in some cases whole churches were detonated or burned with people inside.

The United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR), led by Canadian Lt. General Romeo Dallaire was present, but was powerless to stop it. Despite his warnings and requests for assistance from the UN, he had only 250 volunteer peace keeping troops from Ghana, and was under orders not to use deadly force. The world did nothing to intervene, despite clear evidence that a genocide was occurring.

The focus on exterminating the Tutsis was the Hutus undoing. The Tutsi dominated Rwandan Democratic Front (RFP) took advantage of the anarchy to counter attack, and pushed the Rwandan military and Interahamwe out of the country. This was done by a small minority against overwhelming odds, without any assistance from the international community.

Rwanda was devastated by the civil war and subsequent genocide. Bodies had to be buried quickly in mass graves. Dogs had to executed on mass because they had developed a taste for human flesh. There were hundreds of thousands of injured, orphans, and refugees.

Justice is being sought through an international court established in Arusha, Tanzania (also the home base for our Kilimanjaro climb in June). Due to the large number of perpetrators, local tribunals called ‘gacaca’) have also been adapted in a unique form of community justice. Many of the guilty escaped the country, but many remain. Because so many Hutus (men, women, and children as young as ten) participated to a lesser extent, as a practical matter, they will remain unpunished.

Helping the Batwa

April 8, 2009
On our first morning in Kabale, in the mountains of southern Uganda, we met a young blond woman named Yana. We were in a bakery, and she offered to assist us. We got to talking, and she told us that she is a volunteer who has been in Uganda for 13 months. Her official assignment is to volunteer with the ‘House of Edirisa’, where she leads an out of school enrichment program called ‘Smiles’. But she has also been volunteering with an organization helping the Batwa people.

The Batwa are a race of people whose homeland is the mountains that lie on the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo. The Batwa are a small minority in these countries, less than one percent of the population. Their total number is less than 5000. Their mountains are covered by dense tropical rain forests, which are also the home of the mountain gorillas. Their livelihoods, culture and religion are based on these forests as traditionally the Batwa are hunters and gatherers, living in harmony with the forest. There they are semi-nomadic, moving every few months in search of fresh food supplies. Their tools are pre-stone age. They use sharpened sticks for digging and cutting and arrow tips are just fire-hardened sharpened wood. Occasionally they utilize an iron knife for slashing the thick underbrush. They have lived in these forests for thousands of years.

The Batwa are small in stature. They are also known as “pygmies”, which denotes ancient dwellers of the forest. They are between four and five feet tall.

Over the past 20 years, many of the Batwa homelands have become parks or forests reserves. In many cases, the Batwa were forced to leave their forests, and in some cases, were given land on the surrounding mountain tops. This dealt a devastating blow to these Batwa. They could no longer hunt or gather in the forest. It became illegal for them to even enter the forest, and they are now arrested for being there.

Yana told us about some Batwa villages, and the people that she is working with to help them. We were intrigued, so after returning to our hotel to get our belongings, we tracked her down, and asked her for more information.

With their lives devastated, many Batwa now live in extreme poverty. They are not traditionally farmers, and many have been unsuccessful in cultivating their own crops. They have little or no experience with raising animals. It matters little, as they have neither seed to plant nor animals to raise. As a result of their poverty, and lack of alternative means of support, many Batwa have been exploited by their neighbouring tribes. They have been reduced to virtual serfdom. Some are ‘employed’ to guard the crops of others. Many others have been sexually exploited. They are discriminated against, and are ridiculed if they go into other villages. Some Africans believe that the Batwa have magical powers, and so they are pursued like mythical leprechauns.

The Batwa rarely use the past or future tense, conversing almost exclusively in the present. They essentially had no paradigm or terminology to transition to the 21st century.

Yana told us about five Batwa villages that a very small local aid organization is trying to help. This organization is made up of three young Ugandan men – Anthony (a student), Saul (an accountant at a secondary school), and Nestory (a part-time teacher). They are three non-Batwa friends that come from a village at the foot of the mountains, a four hour steep walk from the Batwa they are trying to help. The Batwa villages are high in the mountains, at about 8000 feet elevation. The fastest route there from Kabale, the closest city, is a two hour drive followed by a hike of up to three hours. For seven years they have been going to visit the Batwa, establishing a relationship, and helping where they can. They helped to get vegetable seeds and start a garden. However, they were extremely restricted in what they could accomplish because they have limited financial means.

Enter an American named Barton Brooks. He is the founder of Guerilla Aid, a one man international aid organization. Barton travels the world in search of projects to help people. His mission is, “Find something that needs doing, do it, and teach others how to do it”. Barton arrived in Kabale about four weeks before we did, and put together a plan to help these Batwa villages, working together with Anthony, Saul, Nestory, and Yana. In the first ten days, this small group got donations to build a chicken coop in the first village, stocked it with 100 chicks, and provided feed and someone to care for the chicks until the Batwa learn to do it for themselves. They also helped a very old man.

They found the old man lying naked on a neighboring hillside. For 30 years, he had lived alone in a grass hut on a hilltop. His job was to guard the potato field of a non-Batwa, in return for which he was paid one potato per day. When they asked him what he wanted, he said that he didn’t want to die in poverty, and that he would like to return to a Batwa village to live in a hut of his own. In just a few days, the small group of volunteers helped him to achieve this. They built him a tiny hut, with a mat and blankets on the dirt floor. They bought him some clothes. Then they built a stretcher, and went to get the old man. When they arrived, he said that he wanted to walk to his new home. Because of they way he had lived, this was extremely difficult for him, and the normal ninety minute walk took over three hours. But he made it. When he arrived, the villagers danced and sang.

Barton and Anthony’s were riding a motorcycle that collided with a Land Rover on muddy roads coming down from the village. Anthony broke his arm. Barton broke his collar bones, both arms, and had a compound fracture of his femur (sticking out the back where his hamstring should be). He spent two days in hospital in Uganda, and then was evacuated to the United States where he has had many surgeries and is still in hospital.

Two of Barton’s friends from Utah, Chris and Paul, where scheduled to come for ten days to work with him. When Barton was injured, they were considering canceling their trip. But they decided to come anyway, based on Yana’s urging, to continue the good work that had been started. We met Chris and Paul in Kabale, when they returned from a day of work in the Batwa village, where they were building bamboo furniture for the school which had none.

Yana told us about the first of the five Batwa villages they were currently trying to help. This village has about 80 adults and 90 children. They live in about thirty mud huts with grass roofs on an exposed mountain slope. Their biggest problem is starvation. They have no animals, other than the chicks that were recently provided for them. They have only a small vegetable garden that cannot sustain the village. They live on a diet that consists primary of porridge made from sorghum. They have no good source of protein.

We decided that we wanted to help. Rather than spend a few days relaxing at Lake Bunyoni, this seemed like something more important. Given that the most urgent priority for the Batwa was food, we decided to donate seed potatoes to the village, to take them there, and to plant them. There was much discussion about whether this was feasible. Did the Batwa have sufficient land to plant the potatoes? Was the land cleared and tilled? Did they know how to plant and harvest potatoes? Did they know how to reserve some potatoes to re-plant? And most importantly, is this what the Batwa wanted? There were some unanswered questions, but it seemed like it would be feasible, so we went ahead.

We donated money to purchase 500 kilograms of seed potatoes and five heavy hoes to till the land and plant them. We arranged to transport all this and us to the village.

We arrived at about noon after a long car ride and a short hike. The elevation was high enough that we noticed a shortness of breath on the walk (at least that’s what I choose to attribute it to, and not a lack of fitness, although that may very well be the case). In these mountains, like many around the world, the weather changes frequently, and rain squalls arrived every hour or so during our time there.

The Batwa men had carried the potatoes up the steep hillside from another village the previous day. They had spent the morning of our arrival tilling two plots of their land with hand tools, so this land was thankfully ready for planting. Like all their land, these plots are located on the hillside. The potatoes had been kept in a secure hut overnight. When one is hungry, it is difficult to care about sustainable farming, and seed potatoes are easily eaten.

Diane, Patrick, the village women, and a couple of Batwa men set to work planting the potatoes. Working from the bottom of the hill, a line of people with hoes dug holes about a foot apart into which a seed potato (or two small ones) were dropped.
Then a similar set of holes was dug immediately above the first, with the dirt pulled down to cover the lower hole. This continued all the way up the slope, and the work progressed very quickly. Before we knew it, the first plot was planted, and we moved to the second one.

Despite their size, the Batwa women are tough.

They swung the hoe almost as hard as Patrick, and didn’t seem to tire as the work progressed. One of the Batwa women was giving Diane a hard time because she wasn’t doing it right.

Upon completing both plots, we paused. Because it’s difficult to work when one is hungry, we had brought some meager food with us for the village. It was recommended that we bring buns, because they are easy to transport and can be eaten immediately, requiring no fuel to cook them. When offered the choice, the Batwa choose to finish planting the second plot before eating.

We handed out the food, and because some of the village men were working elsewhere, there were extras, but we did not eat.

Afterwards, we walked around the village. We met the old man who had recently been relocated. He stood in the door of his new hut, wearing his new clothes, which were a bit too big for him. Diane met Hope, an 18 year old mother of two. She now cares for the old man, with food provided for him.

We saw a new hut being constructed for a single mom with several children, whose old hut was falling apart.

We also helped with the construction of furniture for the school — bamboo desks and benches tied with twine, straight out of Gilligan’s Island. The children have no pencils or books, but at least they won’t have to sit on the floor.

As the end of the afternoon approached, it began to rain steadily. We said our goodbyes, and started to walk down, at which time it began to hail heavily, so we beat a hasty retreat back up to the school building. On our next attempt, we made it down to the car for the long drive back to the Kabale.
The Batwa are an amazing people, and we hope they will survive. The odds are against them.

The Bus Trip

April 3, 2009

Today we rode the bus in Uganda. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.

We caught a shared minivan, known as a ‘matatu’, from our hotel on the outskirts of Kampala, the capital of Uganda, to the area of town where the buses park. There are actual several matatu and bus parks located here, and all the surrounding streets are crammed with matatus and people squeezing between them. The sidewalks are either broken, or jammed with the merchandise of vendors that spills out of their shops, making the muddy streets the only alternative to move around.

We started our search for a bus at about 10:00 AM, walking around trying to find which of the fifteen bus companies spread over four lots had buses leaving for Kabale, and town in the southwest of Uganda near the Rwandan border. After getting lost more than once in the maze of streets, and walking away from one company that wanted too much money and appeared to have questionable looking buses, we finally found a bus at about 11:30.

Upon entering the bus park, we were immediately grabbed by a woman who was one of the many ‘brokers’ or ‘guides’ that work the area. Walking us the 50 feet from the entrance of the bus park to the door of the bus, where we bought our tickets, entitled her to a commission of 1000 Ugandan Shillings (USh), about 60 cents Canadian, from each of our ticket prices (15000 USh). Before purchasing our tickets, we asked when the bus would be leaving, and were told by the ticket seller who stands near the bus door, “45 minutes”.

We boarded the bus, which was nicely painted on the outside, but lacking in most other regards. Instead of the usual four seats in each row, divided by a center aisle, an extra seat had been added to each row (three on one side, a narrow aisle, and two on the other). The seats were covered in stiff plastic, which in theory could have allowed them to be cleaned. The seats closest to the aisle each had an arm rest that flipped up, allowing easier access from the aisle. The arm rests had long since lost all their fabric and padding, and were instead just bare metal bars with sharp edges. We squeeze our backpacks into the overhead racks, and started to wait.

The bus was sitting, along with about thirty other buses, in two rows in an open parking lot under the hot sun. The parking lot was of the smallest possible size that could hold that many buses, while still allowing the occasional departing or arriving bus to be shoe-horned in and out with twenty-point turns. Our bus had its engine idling, doing our part to add to the heat and fumes.

The interior of the bus was a toxic sauna. Very hot and stuffy, it smelled like a mixture of body odour and gasoline fumes and was at least 35 degrees Celsius. There were already a few other passengers sitting in the hot interior of the bus, some sleeping. We took turns sitting in the bus, to watch our belongings and secure our seats, while the other person stood outside to try to get relief from the heat. Although there was more air outside, the sunshine beating down made it more of a change than an improvement.

At one point, Patrick went in search of food, while Diane remained on the bus. The bus started to pull away, and Diane ran to the front of the bus trying to stop them from leaving. It turned out they were just re-positioning the bus. When they started to pull away again, Diane did the same, much to the amusement of the others on the bus. One of the other passengers reassured her that the bus wouldn’t be leaving any time soon.

After forty-five minutes of sweating, plus another 10 minutes for good measure, Patrick inquired with the ticket seller when the bus was leaving. He replied, “45 minutes from the last time I told you”. It soon became clear that the bus wasn’t leaving any time soon. After 90 minutes, and several information gathering discussions with other passengers, it became apparent that the bus would in fact be leaving as soon as all the seats had been sold. Since a refund was out of the question, and any other transportation option would presumably be the same, we sat and we waited some more.

After two hours, the bus was about half full and the temperature was climbing with the afternoon sun. African people are really tolerant of the heat, often wearing several layers of clothing when Diane and I are in shorts and t-shirts, but it was so hot in the bus that the men were taking their shirts off.

While we waited, we were provided with entertainment of a sort. Each new arrival to the bus was a source of small encouragement. Often they were pulled to the bus by one or more brokers, who then fought over the commission and sometimes the passenger, pulling them back and forth to demonstrate their ownership. The bus was filled with a steady stream of hawkers, coming on board to sell radios, flash lights, men’s and women’s shoes, picture frames, candy, and more. They squeezed down the narrow aisle with their wares, pushing past one another and the passengers. Some carried glass plates of food or soda in glass bottles, which you were expected to eat while they waited to collect the glassware. Another guy was selling medications; including de-wormer which it appeared was for human use.

After three hours, we were starting to wear down. Diane was leaning forward with her head on the back of the seat ahead, desperate for a hint of a breeze. By this point, our late departure time guaranteed we would be traveling at night in the mountains, on questionable roads, and arriving late in a small town with no accommodations booked.

Finally, after three and a half hours, the bus filled up and pulled away. We were the only white people on the bus. We thought that things were looking up, but they were only just beginning.

Despite being told that the bus would stop three times, there was only one bus stop, about one hour into our trip. The bus pulled over at a police checkpoint, and the men, plus two women in long skirts, got off to pee at the side of the road, in full view of the remaining passengers. Diane stayed on board.

Bus drivers in Africa have a reputation for traveling too fast. The narrow roads barely provide enough space for a bus to get by oncoming traffic, and at 70 miles an hour, the other vehicles flash by with less than twelve inches to spare. The roads have no shoulder, and often the driver needs to hang some wheels off the broken edge of the pavement, resulting in bone jarring bumps. The roads have a disproportionate amount of large vehicle traffic, perhaps because so few people have cars, so the buses are forever passing slower moving vehicles (usually long gasoline tankers), and often on blind corners and hilltops. There don’t appear to be any speed limits, so the speed is the maximum the driver can reasonably extract from his vehicle and the road conditions, plus twenty percent.

Our bus seemed to have a serious problem with its rear suspension. Every bump was transferred directly to the occupants. Large bumps were accompanied with a loud bang, as the cab of the bus smashed down onto the undercarriage. About one hour into our trip, we hit a bump so hard that the side window in the row behind us shattered, dropping large shards on the passengers. The assistant driver stood up at the front of the bus to see what had happened, then sat down again. The bus continued on.

As darkness approached, we hit a bump so hard that we actually launched out of our seats and into the air. Luckily, Patrick avoided being impaled on the metal armrest. At the back of the bus, some passengers had hit the ceiling, and one man was seriously injured. He cried out, and the passengers stood to see what had happened. People yelled for the driver to stop, but the bus continued on. The passengers were speaking loudly in Ugandan, and were obviously upset that nothing was being done. Diane feared a riot would break out. After much shouting, it took an off-duty Ugandan army member walking to the front of the bus to get it to stop. The assistant driver came to the rear of the bus to see what had happened, then returned to his seat. The bus continued on.

When we reached the next village, the bus stopped. The injured man was helped to the front of the bus, but collapsed twice in the aisle, in obvious pain. He was taken into a pharmacy, probably the closest thing the village had to a medical facility. While we waited, a Catholic nun who was seated near us stood and approached Diane. She asked if Diane was alright. Diane replied, “Yes”, and then asked if the nun was OK. She rubbed the crucifix around her neck and answered, “I’m praying”.

While we waited, villagers sold grilled meat on branches to the passengers through the windows of the bus. As darkness fell, the injured man was helped back to a seat near the front of the bus, trading his previous seat with some other brave soul. We continued through the dark, and into the mountains.

We arrived in Kabale at 11 PM, over twelve hours from the start of our journey, having completed what was supposed to be a six hour bus trip. Diane didn’t use a restroom for the entire period, which wasn’t a problem given how much we were sweating. We found a room at the fourth hotel we tried, which was good because there were only two others in town. Diane was already working on her strategy to convince the taxi driver to take us home and let us sleep on his floor.

Patrick’s Comment — Throughout this trip, Diane maintained a particularly positive attitude, coping with the heat and stress exceptionally well. She even joked along the way. I think she’s got this traveling thing figured out.

Observations about Uganda

April 3, 2009
  • It is lush and green, even now at the end of the dry season.
  • It is one of the safest countries in Africa.
  • It is known as “The Pearl of Africa”.
  • The staple dish is ‘matoke’, a mash of cooked plantains. It tastes like very gluey potatoes, but lumpier and with a bit of a sour taste like turnips.
  • The women are soft-spoken and passive.
  • English is the only official language, although it isn’t usually spoken. Signs and some radio stations are in English, but most people speak ‘Luganda’. Like Kenya, the numeric system is the same as in Canada.
  • The pace seems slower than in Kenya.
  • Like in Kenya, Coke seems to dominate over Pepsi. Coke, Fanta, and Sprite are widely available, but come in glass bottles that are expected to be drunk on the spot and returned. People prefer to drink through long straws, perhaps because the bottles are later refilled.
  • There are a lot of bicycles, all black. None have gears. Most have heavy-duty racks on the back capable of carrying passengers (women ride side-saddle) or baggage.
  • No one obeys the speed limits (if there are any).
  • The roads are about a foot narrower than they should be and there are no paved shoulders.
  • People rarely walk if a boda-boda (a bicycle or motorcycle taxi) is available. They seem shocked that we would want to walk anywhere. We haven’t seen a single runner or jogger in the country.
  • Kampala, the capital city, has a restaurant with the best Indian food that we’ve ever tasted.

Roughing It In Africa

April 3, 2009
Our first two weeks in Kenya have been tough. Food is scarce, and we spend much of our time scavenging. Local food is barely palatable, and Western food is rare, even in the cities. Accomodations are basic, cramped, and noisy. We are keenly aware of the need to protect our valuables, and end up carrying most of our belongings everywhere. By the time we find food and a safe place to stay, we’re typically exhausted. NOT!

In fact, to-date, Kenya has been just the opposite. The time we’ve spend with Norma and Wayne has been rather luxurious.

When Patrick left for a quick side trip to Tanzania, Diane promptly spend all day at the spa with Norma. After her manicure, pedicure, facial, hour long full body massage, and hair wash with scalp massage, she was barely able to face another day.

In Kisumu, Diane had her hair coloured at a salon specializing in Asian and Western hair, which will allow her to face the next six weeks.

On Norma’s birthday, we went swimming at the Panari Hotel pool, followed by a light lunch in the café. Later that day, for dinner, we went to the Mediterranean restaurant, a terrific Italian restaurant in Nairobi.

We spent 2 days at the Lion Hill Lodge in Nakura National Park. We stayed in individual chalets, with floor to ceiling mosquito nets around king sized beds — very romantic.

Elaborate buffet meals are served three times a day, including fresh fruit juices like passion and mango, fresh baked breads, and several varieties of grilled meat. So much for our ‘African diet’. Tea is served every afternoon, and before dinner there is a performance of traditional African dancing and drumming.

Rondo Retreat in the Kakamega Forest Reserve is set in a beautiful park-like setting in the middle of a tropical rain forest. The grounds are ornamented with trees and flowers, cared for by a staff of gardeners. Birds sing constantly from the forest, and Blue and Colubus monkeys visit every afternoon around tea time. At sunset, the crickets and frogs sing in a riotous chorus. Lunch, tea, and supper are served at 1PM, 4PM, and 7PM respectively, in the British style.

Other than these hardships, things have been manageable in Kenya.