Karamoja, Trip Two (at long last)

Posted: October 9, 2007 in Blog

Nearly after a month after having gone there, here is an account of the most recent trip up to Karamoja.

Day One– September 11th

Moroto, Karamoja

Since the years when Britain governed Uganda, the Karamoja region in the region’s northeast has been looked on as a land of undeveloped, violent and backwards people.

This reputation was forged back when the rest of the country, and the continent for that matter, was hardly “developed”, at least in the western sense. But as the rest of Uganda, and Africa, adopts new technologies and otherwise continues to identify more with a western way of life, Karamoja, entrenched in a traditional lifestyle, becomes increasingly marginalized in Uganda.

This is a land of set-in-stone lifestyles. It is a land of people who, at face value anyway, live a way of life that transcends time. Their lifestyle could have been lived as it is today, two hundred years ago, four hundred years ago, six hundred years ago and so on.

They are cattle people. They live in mud huts, and herd their cattle all day, also eating, or selling in market, whatever little food they are able to grow in the soil that is often either bone dry or flooded.

But something is happening here. Though life here remains much the same, change is being forced upon the Karamojong.

Cattle are less prevalent, thanks to near constant cattle raids, and a government crackdown on guns (one of the few modern implements that has taken hold) that prevents reciprocal raids. As such, a way of life is slowly eroding.

And with that comes a search for new coping mechanisms. In Karamojong society, men are in charge of protecting the cattle, while women look after the house, the garden, the children and water supply.

Take away the cattle, and suddenly women are the breadwinners and caregivers. Suddenly they hold a lot more power in the home. This has left a sector of frustrated men who have turned to the bottle.

“Give a man in Karamoja a loan and he spends it on alcohol or gets himself a new wife with the money,” said a local government official over dinner tonight. “Give a woman a loan and she buys animals that feed her family.”

He pointed out how women are becoming more vocal at town meetings. They still don’t sit with the men, and instead sit off to the side. But they don’t sit quietly any more. They listen, and raise their voices when a decision they disagree with is about to be made.

This region, unsettled by gun-filled cattle raids and roadside ambushes (hence us wearing bulletproof vests and helmets while driving today), has seen a dip in violence of late. People attribute it mostly to a government-enforced disarmament process that has seen the army sweep through, confiscating guns and throwing people in prison for possession of illegal weapons.

The government has played it up as a success story, but several agencies have documented rights’ abuses by soldiers.

This came up during dinner tonight. The consensus was that, yes, there are fewer guns. But the problems that led people to arm themselves have not been addressed. People are still stealing cattle. Tribes still don’t get along. And families are still starving.

Food has become central to nearly every kind of development here. When kids go to school, they get food. When they go to the hospital, they get food. It goes on and on.

“When there’s smoke, there’s school,’ one official said at dinner tonight. He said families look across to the school each morning. If smoke is rising from it, that means food is being prepared so they go to school. No smoke, no school that day.

“We sometimes feel like we’re building sand castles here,” a UNICEF official said during the conversation. “We’re building and building, but as soon as the tide comes in, everything gets wiped out.”

They find providing food is essential to the success of any program they run. No food, no attendance. But with food comes a flood of people who can be there for the wrong reasons. So they get more people than they can handle, and they are people who disappear the moment the food is gone.

* * *
Our day began early in Kampala. Three of us reporters (me, a freelance photographer and Kenyan journalist from Nairobi who writes for the UN news service) met at the OCHA office in Kampala for a briefing there, before leaving for the Entebbe Airport. There were only four of us on the flight, so we had a tiny plane. I plunked myself down right behind the pilot to get a good view. After climbing into the plane, our pilot Jan twisted around in his seat like a Dad lecturing the kids in the backseat to tell us about our flight and what to do in case of an emergency.

In a few minutes we were in the air. I watched out the window for a while—I’ll never become bored with the landscape here— but eventually fell asleep to the music on my iPod.

I woke up 15 or so minutes before we were to land, so watched our slow descent into the valley.

It was a bit unsettling to watch our pilot reach down for a map several times and look at it quizzically while peering over the dashboard. “I know there’s supposed to be a landing strip here someplace…” was what I imagined going through his head.

Upon landing, we were mobbed by kids who came running from the fields to greet the plane. They didn’t say much, or do much for that matter. They just watched and scattered each time one of the local officials yelled at them, only to return a moment later.

Then we drove to the nearby Matany hospital (unlike last time, we landed at the landing strip right beside the Matany trading centre). It’s the same hospital we toured on the last trip, but it was still interesting nonetheless. We had a nice lunch and then the head doctor, James, took us on a tour. I was happy to hear that the man I interviewed on the last trip who had been shot in both legs was recovering well.

In the children’s nutrition ward I had one of the nurses show me how they judge whether a child is malnourished. It’s a small paper strip that is a sort of wristband. They wrap it around the child’s bicep, and the total circumference dictates to what extent they are malnourished. Under 13 cm, and they’re in trouble. The kid she demonstrated on had an arm that was 11 cm around. Go measure 11 cm and wrap it into a circle, and picture that as someone’s arm. It’s shockingly small.

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With the help of a nurse who translated, I asked the child’s mother how old the child was. She didn’t know, but guessed the kid was about three. She had just brought the child in today, having walked two hours to do so.

Then we were off for the 45 minute drive to Moroto to have a chat with UN officials at their compound, and then have dinner with local officials at the hotel we’re staying at in the town.

We all had to don bulletproof vests and helmets for the drive. The UN suffered two road ambush attacks in August and they’re not messing around. We had armed soldiers at the front and back of our convoy of two Land Rovers. “We’ve lost a lot of people to that stretch of road,” Moses, the local CAO, said at dinner. He and a couple others at the table then listed off people they knew who had been attacked or killed on that stretch of road. Moses’ village where he grew up is on that stretch of road. “I never used to go home without an armed escort,” he said. “But it’s better now.”

It took me a second to process what it must be like to live 16 km from his home village, but to only be able to make that trip if he takes an armed escort with him.

We met with a few UN officials at their compound, which sits in a beautiful setting at the foot of Mount Moroto. We sat at a round table in a round hut, talking about various issues. We spent much of today doing that— speaking broadly about problems here. We have several more days to get into specifics, and I can feel already that there will be some good reporting to come out of this trip.

Now I’m sitting in my hotel room, typing this on what I think is the most comfortable bed I have laid in since coming to Uganda. We’ll be here two nights and I’m going to enjoy these two sleeps immensely.

It just passed 11 p.m. and, as I was warned, the power slowly faded away and the lights went out. They don’t have an electricity grid in the area— instead the whole town is hooked up to a large generator that provides a few hours of power each evening. Otherwise this whole region of one million lives in the dark.
Day Two– September 12th

Moroto, Karamoja

This morning I woke up feeling like I’d been up for three days. Maybe it was the buzzing mosquitos, sounding like Red Baron fliers dive-bombing my mosquito net. They were helped by the monstrous holes in the net, which had me flailing blindly, kind of like King Kong swatting at those pesky planes from the top of the Empire State Building. ( I couldn’t turn on a light to aid in the hunt since there is only power from 6 p.m. until 11 p.m. each night.

Anyway, we had a breakfast of a boiled egg, mandazi, banana and tea, before setting off for the day.

We began with a meeting at the district offices with the district chairman and the CAO, Moses, who was at dinner here at the hotel last night. We discussed some of the issues facing the district in surprisingly plush offices. The office floor was lined with red carpet. The chairman’s desk faced the door, and overstuffed chairs were lined, facing each other between his desk and the door, creating a gauntlet of sorts. Each chair had doilies on the back and arms.

After our interview, we went on a tour with the WFP of the Moroto Hospital. I picked up some info for a story on HIV rates here in Karamoja. The region was isolated from the rest of the country, and Africa, as HIV rates skyrocketed elsewhere in the ’80s. Because of this isolation, Karamoja’s rates were low while everyone else was dying. But then the rest of Uganda, and eventually much of East Africa, began tackling the problem and their numbers went down. As education has lowered rates elsewhere, Karamoja’s isolation has come back to hurt it, since that education has not reached here and so the rate is growing at an alarming rate. (One story, perhaps as much myth as truth, has it that condoms were distributed to Karamojong men as part of an effort to promote safe sex. The men were told that the condoms would protect them against HIV. Taking the advice at face value, the villages were soon full of men walking around wearing condoms at all times.)

Much of the HIV and TB treatments, and care for young mothers, is centered around food. Come in for treatment, and we’ll give you food. As we toured the facilities, a young boy stumbled around the compound, drunk. The medical superintendent there said he was babbling on about how he was denied food rations. We’ve been told several times that many of those who cannot get food turn instead to the local alcoholic brew, since it’s all they can afford and it dulls the pain of hunger. Here was that issue embodied by this young boy, stumbling around wrapped in a colourful blanket, drunk as anything. These are the sights that weigh heaviest.

Afterwards we toured a school, and teachers’ quarters being built there.

We went to one of the handful of restaurants in town for a mid-afternoon lunch. Still recovering from the stomach parasite that hit last week, I still don’t have a full appetite. But I was hungry going in, and sat down to… well… steamed rice, beans and a chiapatti. It’s all well and good, and I’m still full at 11 p.m. without having had dinner. But damn was it bland. I’m either going to gorge when I travel back home at the end of this contract, having missed out on familiar foods, or I’ll be so used to the utilitarian approach to food here that I’ll keep that approach when I get back. Who knows, but I had a heck of a time choking down lunch. I think it’s just a matter of hitting a wall every now and then.

Then we went to a business starting up here that is harvesting gum from trees that is then used in things like soap and other products. It’s part of a government-supported way to get people away from cattle, and to replace the livelihoods of those who have had their cattle stolen. Cattle are central to so many of the problems facing the region here, that it makes sense. But sitting in the sparse office of these people, I couldn’t help but feel that something like this cannot replace a culture that has thrived, and died, on cattle since the dawn of time.

Then we went to an Italian recreation centre that blew my mind. Inside the gates of this centre, we found hundreds of kids playing volleyball, football (soccer), basketball and all kinds of other games, like pingpong and foosball. It was incredible. We interviewed the Italian guy who runs the athletic programs and spoke with some of the kids. In an area that has so many problems, and so much violence between tribes, here were hundreds of kids laughing and smiling and having a great time. Refreshing, to say the least.

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Then we were back to the UN compound for a security briefing with the security official there. Not much new from him, though a better understanding of overall issues. He feels strongly that the issue of road ambushes is overblown, since the UPDF reports as ambushes many instances that they themselves are suspected of instigating.

Then we were back to the hotel here to meet with a UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights worker who spoke with us over drinks about the issues here. She tours the region following-up on claims of human rights abuses and killings, so she sees the worst of the worst, and told us about this, but all with a smile. “It’s the only way to do it,” she said. “As soon as you get serious, you’re finished.”

She laughed at how bold the Karamojong warriors can be. There is a constant battle between the warriors, who head out on cattle raids, and the UPDF soldiers who try to stop, or catch, them.

Often, a village preparing to head out on a raid will have the local witchdoctor kill a goat, open up its chest and “read” its insides to predict the chances of success for the raid. If the witchdoctor says they will get attacked if they go now, then they go the next day instead.

Well recently, the community invited local officials, the UPDF, even a commander, to the village to witness one of these sessions. But instead, the witchdoctor reported seeing signs that their village was about to get attacked and their cattle raided. So the UPDF deployed in the area to protect it.

The village took advantage of this, heading out themselves and raiding cattle knowing that the UPDF was otherwise occupied. It was only when they heard reports of raids elsewhere that the military put two-and-two together, Priscilla said, laughing. I had to laugh too. You’ve got to give them credit…

With a bundle of information, I returned to my hotel room absolutely wiped. It was time to get some sleep before a busy day, and a long drive (so long as the roads are passable) to our next destinations in Kotido and Kaabong.

Day Three — September 13th

Kotido, Karamoja

Today started the same as before— a single boiled egg, a few pieces of mendazi and a banana, taken with some tea to start the day.

We got an early start—to find some of the local musical artists who are singing about peace, education and protection against HIV. The human rights official with the UN met me and one of the other reporters about 8 a.m. and we picked up a friend of hers, Francis, who knows Moroto well. We headed into Camp Swahili, one of the slums in Moroto, where several of the artists live.

Upon entering the camp, we pulled over, which sent a small group of kids scurrying out of the way, taking their yellow jerrycans with them. These water containers are everywhere. In the morning, the streets are lined with women, always women, walking to or from the nearest well with these containers perched on their heads.

I made a comment about water as this small group moved their containers. The human rights worker with us laughed. “That’s not water,” she said. It’s the homebrew I’ve heard so much about here. Someone with 200 shillings faces what has proven to be a difficult choice: it’s not enough to get food for his family. So what do you do? Buy a bit of food that won’t go far enough, or instead not buy any food at all and get a good dose of alcohol that will dull the pain of hunger and make the day a bit more bearable?

Everywhere we went, we ran into people drinking this homebrew. As we discussed the people in front of us, I could see further down the hill women cooking the grain that forms the basis for the alcohol. Across the way, lines of women waited their turn at the water pump. How much of that water would be used to make the alcohol? What can be done to stop the trend? More importantly, looking around at life here and what lays ahead, can you really blame them?

Francis disappeared into the huts and emerged with two young boys—Legless and Ugly Unit. Both 20, the men released their first record (as part of a group of a dozen called Rocky K’Jong Crew) when they were 12.

Legless is called Legless because he walks with a limp. “How’d you develop the limp?” he was asked.

“I don’t know. I got sick when I was young and now I walk with a limp.”

“Was it polio?”

Legless shrugs. He doesn’t know. And, to him, what does it matter? It’s all in the past, and he survived it.

We interviewed them for 20 or so minutes—it was all a bit rushed because we were trying to squeeze it in before our scheduled departure from Moroto shortly after 9 a.m. I gave them 30,000 shillings for copies of each of the three CDs the group has released (worth the equivalent of about $16 in total). They try to raise 500,000 shillings at a time, which is enough to put on a concert.

They sang for us— a song encouraging Karamojong to get an education. I asked them about their own educations– neither finished school (not surprising in a region where only 19% of children are in school and some 80% of kids between 7-16 have never set foot in a classroom, even once. “I want to go back to school,” Legless said. “I’m not so good with the books.”

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Soon enough we left them and hit the road for the three-plus hour drive to Kotido, through muddy, flooded roads.

Our convoy consisted of two Land Rovers, with a truck of armed soldiers at the front and at the back.

We took nearly an hour at one stretch of road where the water was up to the chest of any man walking through it. Young men and boys from the nearby village had gathered at the flood to help push trucks through—for a price, of course. Of about 200 shillings per person (or about 8 cents each).

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One by one, our trucks made it through. At the far side we stopped to wait for our final truck to make it through. Several trucks sat at the side of the road. Some waiting to get through, some having emerged on the other side. One sat at an angle, having gotten stuck in the mud. One of the boys who had gathered was wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey– further proving that Leafs Nation knows no boundaries.

On we went. The rest of the trip was relatively smooth.

In the back of the hardtop carrier, Jeremy and I bounced around chatting about this and that. I asked him about Karamoja and how its data on things like nutrition levels, mortality, etc. compare with other, higher profile, crisis areas in Africa.

He told me how international media like CNN and the BBC flooded into Darfur when the region’s acute malnutrition levels reached 15%. “Parts of Karamoja routinely pass 40% levels,” he said.

He added that Darfur’s mortality level peaked at five deaths per 10,000 people per day. Data indicates Karamoja could be at a constant level of about eight or nine deaths per 10,000 people per day.

The numbers are shocking, but what makes it difficult to accurately describe the region is that all this data is new, and sometimes not concrete. The region has been such a black hole, that no one can really say how bad things are, except to point out individual cases that paint a picture of life here.

We arrived in Kotido about 12:30, in time to order some lunch and then go to the local District Health Office to interview the man who heads-up the office there. Then back to the restaurant to get lunch—more rice and beans.

Then we went to the local health centre to see their work and tour the facility, which was much the same as other areas, but with one notable exception. In the maternity ward we met a young woman who had just given birth to twins— one girl, one boy— the night before. As we spoke with her, she sat on the edge of her bed with her mother there helping her. The newborns lay in a small bed beside her. We spoke with the mother with the help of the health centre’s midwife (the only person in the area trained to deliver babies—she figures she delivers about 2,000 a year). I asked the mother what the names of the babies were.

They hadn’t been named yet, she said.

“She wants to know what your name is,” the midwife said to me.

The midwife told the mother that my name is Chris and the two of them spoke briefly.

“She wishes to call the young boy ‘Chris’,” the midwife told me.

The mother smiled. I, taken aback, smiled as well, and asked the midwife to thank the mother. I couldn’t think of much else to say.

Next we went to a nearby village, where we saw some of the work they are doing to distribute mosquito nets and dig pit latrines (1.2% of the district’s population has access to latrines).

‘Do you find people use the latrines once they’re made?” I asked the district health officer.

“Well we get them into the latrines, I can’t say they all use them properly,” he said, laughing.

We spoke with people who lived there in the village, and took pictures of the children. We also got to see a minyata for the first time—these are the protected homesteads clans build to secure themselves against raids. They are fenced in—incredibly strongly, too— using dried sticks that are packed and woven so tightly that a bullet would have a hard time piercing the perimeter.

Outside the minyata, a man was weaving a grainary— a bulbous structure. This 43-year old man has nine wives, who have given him 61 children, 57 of whom survive today and only six of whom go to school. He was quite proud of himself, and told us how the entire minyata was populated with his wife and children.

Over the years, he had paid 810 million shillings in dowries for his wives—in the form of 2,700 cows. He has herds of several thousand cattle, goats and sheep. Hence, he is considered very wealthy, as illustrated by the bone bracelets he wore on his wrists.

Then we went back to the hotel here. It’s called La Maison, and is a house where we were the only five guests. There is no water, and the house is powered on solar power.

Our dinner came a little after 8:30 at night, and was quite good. Rice, cassava (kind of like mashed potatoes), kale and boiled chicken. My piece of chicken was the body of an entire chicken, minus the legs and wings. On that entire piece—nearly a whole chicken—I managed to pull off two small forkfuls of meat. The rest was skin and skeleton. It’s often the case in Kampala, but here it’s that much worse—that there is so little food for the animals that when you eat them, there is barely any meat to be found.

The solar power cut out towards the end of dinner, so we finished up in the glow of a kerosene lamp before retiring to the plastic patio chairs that sat on the perimeter of the main room.

That’s where I am now, typing this while the others talk and read. Periodically, you hear the hard smack of large beetles that drop from the ceiling. They sit on the ground, stunned for a moment, before flying back up to the ceiling to prepare for their next plummet.

Day Four– September 14th

Kidepo Valley National Park, Karamoja

“La Maison” guest house in Kotido turned out to be less than stellar. Besides limited power and no water, our breakfast consisted of a bowl of ground nuts and tea (in their defense it was because their access to supplies was cut off by flooding in the region). So we sat around the plastic patio chairs, had our breakfast and went down to the markets for a half hour before we were scheduled to begin our journey to Kaabong, and Kidepo after that.

We could have spent hours in the market, and it was not a very big one. The markets here are just so interesting—such a slice of life between the people you see there, and the things on sale. Our first stop was a stall that sold the Kenyan blankets everyone here wears. The fashion is so interesting. It’s all a mix of cultures that would look so bizarre on me, or anyone else, and yet looks amazing on the people here, in large part because they wear it with such pride. Typical fashion includes a brightly-coloured Kenyan blanket, sandals and a felt fedora with a feather sticking out of it.

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This outfit can be combined with a variety of bracelets, necklaces and piercings. Women are also likely to have the scarring on their forehead that is seen as a sign of beauty.

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Most men carry sticks, used for walking and also for directing cattle, as well as a small wooden stool that is incredibly multi-purposed. It can be used to lean their arm on if they care to lie in the shade, or to rest their head, or to sit on. They just carry it on the end of a small rope handle that dangles from their wrist.

So we wandered around and bought some things. I bought six Kenyan blankets, four for 10,000 shillings each (about $6 or $7) and two more for 9,000 shillings. I also bought a few brightly-coloured scarves and some beaded bracelets. The scarves were 4,000 shillings each (about $2) and the bracelets were each 300 shillings, so three came to about 60 cents.

We had a breakfast of rolexes from a nearby restaurant, since the nuts were unlikely to keep us going all day. And then we were off, for Kaabong, where we had a few hours of meetings planned before we hit the home stretch for the light that had been flickering at the end of the tunnel throughout the trip— Kidepo Valley National Park.

The road to Kaabong was rough, but no worse that what we’d been traversing the rest of the trip. We sat in the back of the Land Cruiser wearing our uncomfortable and heavy (and hot) bulletproof vests and helmets. The further north we went, the hotter it got. We took whatever breeze we could from the open windows, but otherwise sat, sweating and with dry throats as the landscape generally became more arid, though still surprisingly green.

Outside Kaabong, we visited a trading centre where the French arm of Doctors Without Borders has set up a mobile nutrition tent for children in the area. It’s too much for villagers to travel to the towns, so they have come in to tour the trading centres so parents can bring their young kids in to be assessed for malnutrition.

Kaabong District has long been one of the most remote, and desperate, districts in all of Uganda. And yet there are only two international aid organizations working there right now, including MSF, which only arrived two months ago and will only be there another six months or so providing emergency nutritional relief.

The region has been ignored for a variety of reasons, but mostly because no one has previously known just how bad things have been there. It is so remote, and so inaccessible because of violence, that no one really knew the true desperation of the population.

But the one international aid organization, MedicAid, there doing water and sanitation work contacted the World Food Program (WFP) because they were so alarmed by the conditions in the district. Because of that, WFP, and soon after MSF, did an assessment of the area. MSF was not yet finished their assessment when the WFP came out with figures showing over 2o% of the children there were suffering from global acute malnutrition.

United Nations’ organizations have a rule that they intervene in an area when its GAM levels surpass 10%. International media flooded into Darfur in Sudan when that region’s GAM surpassed 15%, and here was an area where over 20% of the population was silently suffering from chronic malnutrition.

“We were in the middle of doing our assessment when the WFP figures came out,” the MSF project coordinator in Kaabong told me. “As soon as those came out, our directors called us up and said not to wait for our own assessment to be finished. Just to get in here as fast as we could.”

They’re trying to set up infrastructure for long-term nutrition programs, but they are a group that specializes in emergency relief, so they will leave soon enough and hope that another organization will step in to set up long-term support.

Afterwards, we drove into Kaabong to see the work they’re doing at the hospital there, and then a lunch (more rice, but this time also chiapatti, chicken and cassava). I’m getting used to eating with my hands now. Especially in the rural areas, utensils are rare. You think eating rice with chopsticks is hard? Try eating rice covered in sauce from the chicken with your hands, while trying not to get covered in the stuff.

After lunch, we bid goodbye to those who were heading back to Kampala and the remaining four of us went on to Kidepo. The drive took about an hour and a half, and went relatively smoothly, as the rivers were manageable. Along the way we passed the river where a Daily Monitor reporter had died a few years ago when the vehicle he was driving in got swept away by the river’s current (there is no bridge, so you just drive down the bank, across the river and up the other side, so fingers crossed that it’s not running deep).

The amount of death-related landmarks we’ve passed on this trip has been a bit disconcerting. Besides the river, we have passed several crosses on the side of the road marking spots where various people have died in road ambushes, and our driver kindly pointed out the spots where a WFP driver had been killed earlier this year in an ambush, and also the two spots where attempted ambushes on UN convoys have taken place in the last few weeks.

But we got through no problem, and arrived at Kidepo by about 4 p.m. Within minutes of crossing into the park, we came across a herd of zebra. This, after not seeing any wildlife, except birds, in four days of traveling. It just goes to show how much the wildlife population has been hunted. Can you blame the local villagers? How do you convince a local population to buy in to conservation efforts when they’re starving?

Here in the park, though, they are protected. And so it was that these zebras were just inside the park boundary. It was my first-ever zebra sighting, so obviously I, and all of us for that matter, was quite excited.

A few kilometers later, we arrived at the lodge here. My god, this place is amazing. We were greeted by the friendly South African couple, Barbara and Joe, who run the place. As she told us about the lodge facilities, we were presented with fresh iced tea, complete with sugar-rimmed glasses and slices of orange. It felt surreal to be sipping from sugar-rimmed glasses, having just spent several days collecting information on crushing malnutrition levels. We were then shown to our cabins to get settled before gathering in the dining hall for tea and snacks.

The lodge has 10 individual grass-thatched, canvas-walled huts. Inside, they have a massive wooden bed, with a mosquito net canopy, two overstuffed chairs with a solid wooden coffee table, a desk and an open wooden closet. In the bathroom, there is a beautiful rock shower that overlooks the grasslands where zebra, buffalo, water bucks, jackals and antelope graze lazily. Beyond that, through a screen door, each cabin has a private rock outdoor bathtub. It wasn’t long before I was soaking in that, enjoying the view of the animals.

Out front of the cabin is a covered porch with a comfortable couch. I did much of my writing from that comfortable perch.

Over by the dining area is an outdoor pool carved into the rock.

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Above and beside that, is an observation tower with a couple couches where the whole region can be viewed, and also where the night watchman stays for the night to escort anyone who wishes to go to or from their cabin in the dark (with lions and buffalo hanging out nearby people are not allowed to walk alone at night).

The lodge overlooks much of the park, with the mountains marking the Sudanese border, and to the right the Kenyan border, in the distance.

After a relaxing evening, we joined the french group here for dinner at the long lodge table, where we had beef tenderloin, mashed potatoes, pumpkin soup, and crème caramel. Before dinner, I sat in one of the many couches and chairs in the hall, with a view overlooking the grasslands, reading a book and enjoying some complimentary drinks. (Everything is included in the accommodation price, which is nice). I have been taking medication to flush out a parasite that gave me hell a week or so back. I couldn’t drink any alcohol while taking the medication so I was sure to take my last pill on Thursday to have it cleared out of my system in time for this weekend (priorities, right?). Nothing was going to stop me from having a happy hour in this setting.

During dinner I spoke with Barbara and Joe, who join us at every meal, about what it’s like to run a lodge in Karamoja—a region with so many negative connotations. “When we came here I was wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into because I’d heard so much about the violence in Karamoja,” Barbara said. “But then we got here and wondered what the fuss was all about.”

Joe agreed. “This park has some of the wildest views I’ve seen,” he said. “The fact that so few people have traditionally come here makes it that much better for those who do come.”

We finally left the dinner table about 11 at night, exhausted from a long journey. I climbed into bed—with Egyptian cotton sheets, it is by far the most comfortable bed I’ve found in Uganda— and fell asleep soon enough.

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Only I was woken about 4:30 a.m. by heavy breathing and loud chewing sounds. Directly behind me. It was either a buffalo, or a water buck (like an oversized deer) that was grazing directly behind my cabin. Funny when whether or not an animal chews with his mouth open determines whether you sleep through the night.
Day Five — September 15th

Kidepo Valley National Park, Karamoja

Lions are shy towards humans, and avoid confrontations at all costs. If you tell yourself that often enough, you eventually begin to believe it.

That was something to keep in mind this night, when two female lions walked past our dinner table, only a few metres from where we were eating.

After a day of game drives, and relaxing by the pool, the 11 of us sat down to a fantastic outdoor dinner of bbq’d chicken, pork chops and lamb with a wide array of side dishes. The four in our group, along with the five French group and the two, Barbara and Joe, who run the lodge, were talking over desert when Joe, facing the rock that rises above where we were eating suddenly pointed and, with his eyes on fire, said “Nobody move” in a hushed, but urgent, tone. We all turned just in time to see the shapes of two fully-grown lions walking above us.

Joe grabbed a flashlight and ran up the stairs that led up to where they were walking. “Follow me, but stay behind.” We all got up and rushed quietly behind him. We followed the lions about 15 or 20 feet behind, as they made their way through the lodge grounds. As we stalked the lions, we heard a loud grunt off to our side, where a few of us turned to see two fully-grown buffalo sitting in the grass a few feet beside us.

The lions didn’t pay us much attention. But up close it is easy to see just how impressive these creatures are. They’re all muscle, and move with a confidence expected of anything possessed with such a keen ability to kill.

Eventually, the lions crossed over a hill and disappeared. We walked back to the table, exhilarated. “That’s never happened before!” Joe kept saying. Pretty damn cool. As we sat back down to finish our meal and chat, we heard a chorus of lion calls in all directions around us. The pride of 11 lions was in the area, along with a few others, and so everyone was calling out their territory. Several other lions were spotted that night, and we eventually went to bed, excited by the encounter.

About 2:30 in the morning, I was awoken by a very loud noise. It was an animal of some kind. The night before, there had been a buffalo directly behind my head on the other side of the canvas wall. Its noises kept me up for a while. But already, by my second night at the lodge, I had become more accustomed to the noises, and so just rolled over and went back to sleep.

At breakfast Sunday morning, two others in our group came to the table fully charged, but tired. “Did you hear that last night??” they asked excitedly.

Yeah, I heard something about 2:30. What was it?

“There were lions right outside our cabin!”

Apparently there were several lions surrounding their cabin, all making territorial calls. The noise only lasted 20 minutes or so, but the thought of several lions surrounding them kept them awake for a couple hours. I probably would have been up for a while too if I’d realized just what it was at the time.

But there was more to Saturday than just the lions. We got up at 6 a.m. for an early breakfast of toast, wrapped bacon and granola, yogourt and fresh fruit.

By 7 a.m. we were ready for our game drive. We had to wait a while because of rain but by 8 or so we were on the trail. This would be my first chance to see so many of these animals, and I was excited for what we were about to see.

We climbed into the large safari Toyota Land Cruiser with our guide, Augustus, and began the adventure. Our first stop was a nearby rock outcropping where two male lions were basking in the early morning sunlight. I hadn’t yet had the excitement that came later in the day, so this was my first ever sighting of lions in the wild, and it was quite something. We stayed for a while, taking photos of the two cats lounging in the sun, and then went off to see what else we could find.

Over the course of the next four-plus hours, we saw giraffes (13 of the 18-20 that live in the park), more lions, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of buffalo (I was able to imagine what it must have been like to see the giant herds of buffalo that once roamed the Canadian west), water buck (like large deer), wildebeest and all kinds of other smaller animals and dozens of bird species.

It was great fun, and allowed us to see nearly every animal we had come to see, except an elephant.

We got back to the lodge about 1 p.m. and sat down for a large meal of hamburgers, fries, onion rings and several tasty salads. We decided not to do another game drive later that day and to instead relax at the lodge. It allowed for some time to swim in the pool, read, have some drinks and otherwise just enjoy the setting (something I wish we had more time for).

As I lay on the bed in my room, reading a book I’d picked out from the lodge library (Empire Falls by Robert Russo), I heard Hussein, the fourth member of our group, call my name. I came out to see what was up and found him excited and saying we all had to come. He had asked around with some of the staff about a “rogue” elephant in the area named Bul-Bul, who was known to spend a lot of time down the hill from the lodge at the staff quarters and hostel.

Low and behold, Bul-Bul was around, and when I came out to Hussein he pointed out the outline of the large elephant in amidst the huts in the distance. We called Joe over and asked if he could take us down there, and so the four of us climbed back into the safari vehicle with Joe to go see Bul-Bul.

We drove into the collection of huts, very humble homes for the staff while they’re working on-site, to find Bul-Bul on the far side. He was massive, and dark, almost black, as he foraged in the nearby grass.

Besides being incredibly tame, he has taken a liking to the substance that is leftover from the making of a grain-based alcoholic brew that many of the locals make. So as we sat and watched Bul-Bul, the staff collected a couple tubs of the substance and dumped it in the nearby grass. Bul-Bul immediately came over and began munching on the food, while we watched and snapped pictures about 20 feet away.

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It’s funny that this elephant has become so friendly with those who live in the huts, but it’s probably a sign of bad things to come. Already, he has ripped off some of the roofs of the huts when they haven’t been giving him enough food. A step further, and someone might get hurt, at which point he would be shot. “This is so wrong…” Joe said as we watched.

He had a point, but it was to be our only chance to see an elephant, and it allowed us to say we were able to see every species of animal we wanted to spot in the park.

Before dinner, I sat in the lodge dinning hall on one of the comfy chairs, reading my book. Joe came over and as we each had a drink, we chatted about the park’s history and the developments leading up to the building of this lodge, which opened in January 2006.

“It used to be the Wild West around this place,” Joe said. The park was largely devoid of visitors for more than 20 years, because the lodge closed when civil war broke out in the years after Idi Amin was ousted in 1979. The same company that ran the lodge had also built a hotel, in the hopes of boosting business. But the war broke out before the hotel could host even its first guest and it never opened. Today it sits in ruins within sight of the lodge.

It’s such an interesting place, with a history that adds a different level of depth to the experience of seeing it for the first time. There’s also something special about being part of such a small group that has made it up to the park and seen what it has to offer.
Day Six– September 16th

Kidepo Valley National Park, Karamoja

This day began early again– 6 a.m.– so that we could head off on a walk through the savannah with Joe and a park ranger to get a closer look at the animals. We saw many of the same animals as the day before– giraffes, buffalo, wart hogs, gazelle, jackals, lions (much of the pride was perched on the rocks nearby where we were to begin the walk. “We’ll just drive a bit further before we start the walk to put some space between us and the lions,” Joe said. Yeah, thanks, a head-start would be nice.)

It was a nice way to cap off a stay at the lodge, because we had lunch when we got back and then went to the nearby airstrip to meet our plane for a flight south to Soroti to witness the effects of the severe flooding that has crippled the region.

I enjoyed our last bit at the lodge– for two people to come to this place from North America would cost about $10,000 for airfare and accomodation from Friday-Monday– knowing that we had a couple of rough days ahead of us in the flooded areas.

The flight south to Soroti went well enough, though traveling in a four-seater plane was interesting. Anyone who makes the argument that the best way to scare a kid away from smoking cigarettes is to force them to smoke three packs would also make the argument that the best way for a person to get over a fear of flying would be to take a flight in the plane we had. It was a tiny, single-prop contraption that blew off course at even the slightest gust of wind. At times I pictured a snotty-nosed kid on the ground somewhere, piloting our plane with a remote control. The fact that our pilot spent most of the flight reading a magazine didn’t help matters. Here’s the plane:

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Days Six and Seven– September 17th and 18th

Soroti and Katakwi, Teso Region

We spent two days in the worst of the flood-affected regions, talking to local officials and visiting an IDP camp to get a sense of how people are coping. The consensus? They’re not coping well.

During one meeting with local officials, we asked about road repairs. During our entire time driving in the region the only road works we saw being carried-out were being done by local villagers who, having done this work at their own initiative and thusly unpaid, stopped passing cars for donations so they could buy lunch that day.

“Does the district not have road maintenance crews and machines?” we asked.

Yep, they do, we were told. But they’re sitting idly by, because the central government has not released any money to put fuel in the vehicles. It was incredible to hear this, given that one of the biggest challenges during the floods was simply reaching those who were worst-affected. Make the roads passable, and suddenly supplies and medicines can reach these communities. So aid organizations, focused on relief efforts, suddenly had to also make provisions for fuel and vehicle maintenance costs since the government wasn’t providing it.

During our visit to the IDP camp we toured the collection of crumbling mud huts. Their mud floors were, as one would expect, wet and muddy. Those who remained in their huts were sleeping in the mud. The lucky ones had white plastic tarps to sleep on. The even luckier ones had moved into the nearby school, as it was the only concrete structure in the community. Classes were supposed to have started during the week we were there, but schools remained closed because most in the area were full of people who had nowhere else to go.

After two days, we piled back into one last plane for the flight back to Kampala after a long, fascinating and, at times, frustrating trip that left me with memories that will long out-live anything I have seen or heard in Kampala.

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Comments
  1. Kevin says:

    Chris, again, your writing is spectacular. I feel as though I’ve just returned from Karamoja myself.

  2. SADJO says:

    YOU DID A NICE WORK, YOUR RWITINGS ARE AMAZING! IT MAKES THE READER FEELS LIKE ITS HAPPENING NOW! WHILE READING, YOUR STORY TOOK MY SPIRIT IN KOTIDO AND KAABONG.

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