Adventure in West Nile – and beyond
There were two international highlights to our trip to West Nile. The silly Muzungu was to miss one of them!
On Saturday morning, we took the smooth tarmac road from Arua, heading north towards the border with South Sudan. We passed few vehicles on our two hour journey. We drove through Koboko, location of the Amin family home.
Although Hashers had been disappointed to learn we wouldn’t be able to cross into South Sudan, the reasons why were quite apparent once we got to the Oraba border. Queues of young Sudanese refugees, mostly women, young children and teenagers, stood in orderly lines waiting to register with humanitarian agencies. A gigantic World Food Programme tent sat one side of the road. In front were lines of buses and piles of bags and bedding. The whole scene seemed calm and orderly; apparently we arrived on a quiet day. Generally 1,500 refugees enter Uganda via this border every day.
Uganda’s friendliest policeman
Uganda’s friendliest policeman explained that there is no trade with South Sudan. Even the petrol tankers that we saw driving across the border were actually destined to cross into the DRC a couple of kilometres ahead. He explained that on the other side of the border, things were quiet but the real trouble was further north.
There is no discernible difference to the buildings and huts on either side of the border. My few days stay in Arua gave me a better appreciation of the historically mixed communities and tribes in West Nile, South Sudan and the DRC.
The policeman explained that the river is the natural boundary between Uganda and South Sudan. He pointed to where the Congolese border is, 4 or 5 km away. Although the official border is Oraba, it is of course “very porous” meaning you can’t police every field and bush. (So how many people are really coming into Uganda from South Sudan?)
Tripping over goats
I would say the people of Oraba were very surprised to see 20 or more Hashers in bright pink T-shirts tripping over goats in their backyards!
I wasn’t running that day so every few minutes, the runners would stop, let me catch them up, then they would run off again for a few minutes. We repeated this several times… until…
We must have been running / Hashing / walking for an hour before it really started raining. I was carrying my phone and camera in a cotton bag which I stuffed up inside my T-shirt. I wrapped my arms around my stomach and put my head down to try and avoid the worst of the heavy rain. My glasses quickly misted up so I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
The rain became heavier and heavier. If someone had called out to me, I would never have heard them above the sound of the rain. In Kampala, I would have quickly looked for shelter (like a bar!) but I was in the middle of the bush. There were cracks of thunder overhead. Standing under a tree wasn’t really an option.
I saw no-one: no Hashers, no bright pink T-shirts, no villagers. There were no vehicles, no boda bodas, no bicycles. Just the goddam rain and bush.
I walked on for what seemed like ages. There were no signs of any chalk marks to show the Hash route. The rivers of rainwater running over the tops of my trainers told me that the chalk marks were long gone.
I just kept walking. What else could I do?
I was totally soaked, but the heavy rain wasn’t subsiding. How long could I go on like this?
I realised that we had definitely walked more than 5 km since leaving Oraba – remembering the policeman’s words, I wondered: were those the 5 km that were going to lead me into the Congo? There’s a thought: where the hell am I? If I accidentally cross into the Congo, who will know? If the muzungu can’t make herself understood here in the village, how will I communicate with someone deeper in the bush? Will my phone network work if I accidentally cross the border?
I got a bit despondent at this point. Had the others forgotten me? Had they turned off halfway down the hill while I had marched up ahead in the wrong direction?
I approached a homestead of large square thatched huts. I didn’t know whether to go forward or back. Instead I stood under a small tree, contemplating what to do…
Jajja to the rescue!
An old lady beckoned me over.
She waved her arm at me and invited me into her hut. She produced a blue plastic chair for me to sit in the middle of her large hut, bare but for a chicken scraping at the dirt floor. Five young children stood around staring at the Muzungu wringing out her sopping wet hair.
The rain eventually stopped.
I asked Jajja where Oraba was. She pointed right and then she pointed left. Hmmm… in two opposite directions!
I decided to turn left which put me back on the same path I had been on before. I called Hashmistress who said they had a problem seeing the turning as well. (That did not give me much confidence. I had walked with my head down – who knows how many turnings I had passed during that time?) She added that I just needed to “look out for a cassava field and an upturned pot.” Roughly translated this may equate to ‘branch at the pawpaw tree’ in Hash-speak, especially to a Muzungu who lives in Kampala and can’t tell her cassava from her yam! (Did I mention something about feeling despondent?)
I carried on walking. I looked left and right. I didn’t think I had passed any cassava, I certainly had not seen an upturned pot.
Then I hit what can only be described as a road. Surely Hashmistress would have told me if I was about to reach a T-junction intersection with a road?
Breaking all the rules
And then I heard something. I couldn’t believe I was hearing it. I was so lost in my little world in the middle of nowhere, that it took me a few seconds to work out what the noise was.
It was a boda boda!
I almost ran towards him.
And then I broke my own rule. Normally I discriminate and only go with the mzee, the oldest boda boda driver. This time I jumped on the first boda boda I saw.
A young boy filled up the motorbike engine with some petrol from an old water bottle and we were on our way bumping down the marram roads, the wind blowing through the muzungu’s wet hair.
I knew that I would regret this decision. I knew that KH3 would be merciless with me for cheating!
“Oraba” I said. “Is it far?” I asked the boda guy.
“It’s a bit close,” came the answer.
If I’d taken a guess, I would have taken the right direction but the 15 minute boda boda journey would have been a lot more on that dodgy foot.
Luckily my camera had survived the downpour so I had a chance to film this! Look out for: the man carrying a bed on his head… the men leading a cow to market … the men thatching a hut! Look closely and you may catch a young boy waving at the muzungu…
“Nagawa* – you cowardised!” Said Ki Love Love
Back at the main road, I had expected to see everyone there waiting for me. I had been worried that I would be holding up the bus. I couldn’t believe it took them more than an hour to join us, while I shivered in my freezing wet T-shirt. I stood next to the slowly barbecuing goat and hugged the heat coming off it. It’s many a year since I’ve been that cold.
A regular hash is just one hour, these guys ran for 3 ½ hours. Where had they been?
To the DRC!
To South Sudan!
Everyone apart from me made it to the tripartite border, a point where Uganda converges with the DRC and South Sudan.
Without Nagawa! Eh banange! I was gutted.
What kind of a travel blogger gets lost and misses the international highlight of the trip?!
… NOTE: During my West Nile adventures, I stayed in Arua. I love this town. Read my blog ’10 little-known things to do in Arua, West Nile.’