[Taken from the Ugandan Journals]
It’s a hot morning in Kitgum, some three hours’ journey in a bus from Gulu, Uganda. I wake reluctantly under a clinging mosquito net inside the steel and painted-concrete guesthouse. It’s the final days of my trip here, and the arc of the journey is about to turn back on itself. I have three more days left until it is time to board a flight back from Uganda to the first world. Do people still call it that? They could.
A place where people live in a high-tech parallel universe. By hard work and an accident of birth, I am able to move between these places. Leave Uganda and go to a place more comfortable. But memories are never left as easily as places. As people.
I feel, having come here and seen, that I owe something emotionally to the people I met. To Hope, who so tirelessly showed us around Gulu and introduced us to the women’s groups, the dancers at Cope. To Rose, who lent us her cooking stuff because we had none. Who played the harp for us in the afternoon. Whose introduced us to her extended family – so many children being raised on a combination of miracles and will.
All I have are fragile little words. I can’t heal. I can’t build.
I can leave them, but can’t leave any obligation to help, to make a difference here in whatever way I can. My conscience wouldn’t allow me to discard the memories. For what I have seen and heard to have had any value, it needs to be acted on. And to be told to others in the hope that they might see. That they might act.
Waking up this morning, the first things I did were drink honey that I had bought late yesterday at a small shop nearby, and read the last pages of James Maskalyk’s book Six Months in Sudan. Abyei, the town in Sudan in which he volunteered as an MSF doctor, was ultimately destroyed by war. He gave everything to help its people and, in the end, lost. But is no less a hero for it.
Next to actions like this, my own journey seems pointless. Tame. Why did the world have to be so goddamn big, and the list of things I can see and do be so goddamn small. All I have are fragile little words. I can’t heal. I can’t build.
Saskia, my traveling companion, is not up by 09h00, so I sit on the swept-concrete floor of the guest house updating my journal notes. I haven’t seen her since earlier yesterday evening, and wonder if everything is OK. Though perhaps I am the one squirreling away. Perhaps I am the only one not settled at the idea of returning to the real world.
I put Maskalyk’s book to one side. When I was younger and read the Lord of the Rings, I recall an intense envy of the returning hobbits. They had changed the world, and it them. I’ve wanted to feel what it is like to return from doing something that mattered my entire life since.
Saskia appears, as unaffected as normal, brushes her teeth and we agree that this morning is as good as any to make our way back to Kampala if there are buses going. Our work has finished, and it’s too hot for much more exploring. It’s time at last to go home.
At the bus park, the predictable wall of touts tries to push us into buses of various levels of safety. I’ve heard all these plays before, particularly the time tested, “Mzungu, you must hurry, the bus is about to leave!”, and I refuse to be drawn into boarding one of the smaller, packed minibuses in a panic. We book two tickets with a bus company named Northern Express for around 25,000 Ugandan shillings each. The bus company has an office and two buses, so it can’t be completely unsafe. Besides, I reason that if there is going to be an accident, I would rather be in the large bus hitting something than be in the smaller something that the bus hits. I grin.
The pair of us find a café two blocks away and sit down, out of the heat to sip sodas, read, write and feel the warm wind while we wait for the bus’ two-o-clock departure. I’m starting to feel more open, more as I do when I typically find writing become easier. It’s likely the a result of having nothing to do for the next few hours except pass the time watching life go by.
I am reading Ngugi-wa-Thiogo’s Re-membering Africa and am reminded a little of the power of words. Of why the stories we tell can matter. It’s precisely the book I needed to read to feel that perhaps the notes I keep could come to mean something. Might change something somewhere. Maybe.
Watching Saskia rummage through her bag, and scream as she finds a frog there, I laugh, stop reading and begin to keep notes. When you are ready to write, the universe is always willing to give you something to write about.
The bus, as a pleasant surprise, leaves at 16h00 as promised. The journey takes the better part of eight hours, with particularly hairy moments on the Kitgum to Gulu road. Trying to avoid oncoming traffic, sometimes literally by inches, the bus veers off the sand onto a lower level and lilts at crazy angles. I clench all my muscles and try to will the bus upright. It’s the equivalent of trying to fly by pulling on your feet.I find myself wondering how many degrees its chassis can actually lean before turning over onto its side, and expect that we are close to that point, as I look out of the window to my left and see the road where it shouldn’t be. The bus creeps forward, and tilts left a degree or two more. I try not to panic.
This happens four or five times before we reach Gulu. From there, it’s all thin tar to Kampala.
Though we’ve only been gone two days, I feel a real sense of nostalgia at entering, then leaving Gulu again on our journey south. Familiar roads. Timothy’s microfinance office. Campaign posters keep him smiling off the walls. He’s clearly been busy. Past the road to what became our house. Out of the city and across the turn-off to Bishop Onono’s house.
As I often do when leaving places, I wonder whether I’ll ever set foor back here again. I hope I do. I hope I can plead for an MA topic that can let me do fieldwork here again next year. For all the postconflict and development studies people around here, I am sure that there is research space for a topic broadly covering postconflict media representation . There will be a space, I decide. At the end of the world, there are always spaces.
We are not far out of Gulu when sunset arrives. Yes, it’s cliché to remark on the beauty of an African sunset, but it’s beautiful regardless. A perfect red-orange disc sinking behind the trees of the Ugandan bush. I’m reminded of a friend’s comment seeing a sunset in Ethiopia almost precisely a year ago.- “It’s strange to think of it there. One giant, burning planet.” he said. Strange indeed.
Night falls quickly, swallowing all but the huts closest to the road. Behind one I can see three children dancing, silhouetted against a large bonfire. Behind another, I can see a group of men laughing as they sit in a circle talking. At each subsequent fire by each subsequent hut lies another story. A family coming together for dinner. A man cooking ciapattis on a coal burner. A woman turning maize cobs on a grill. Even as night hides almost everything, small fires and the activities of home life shine through. A metaphor, perhaps, for the last few years of Northern Ugandan history. I can’t help thinking of Rose. I hope that she is well.
Watching Saskia rummage through her bag, and scream as she finds a frog there, I laugh, stop reading and begin to keep notes.
As it grows later and I drift in and out of sleep on my seat, time becomes distorted. Waking up after a stop, I watch stars from the window of the bus. I wonder how they are different from the southern skies of South Africa. A shooting star disintegrates in the distance.
Quick, make a wish.
‘I wish that all of Rose’s children complete school.’
Where did that come from? Still, it’s the best wish that I could think of making, and it seems like a good one. I look back up at the stars and wonder whether the words will mean anything. I’m less confident in their power than I was earlier in the day.
I suspect Katherine would be proud to know that I had been reading wa-Thiogo in Kitgum. Reading about the enslavement of Africa through language takes new dimensions when you are surrounded by English advertising for MTN airtime, for soda, for beer. I’ve saved the book for her. Buried it in my daybag because she will want to read it. Intellectual African authors were always one of her fondest reading weaknesses. I miss her.
It’s strange to think of myself as one isolated human here in central Africa, making his way over the next few days to see another, very specific human in the cold of a UK winter. Love writes so many of the stories that make our lives interesting. And I’m glad it does too. I can’t think of another human on earth right now that I would rather be traveling to see.
Eventually, I drift back to sleep and wake as our bus begins the slower navigation of the egregious Kampala roads. From the nighttime bus park, it’s a taxi to Rubaga and we are back in the backpackers from which our voyage originally began. Where two dutch students, Gertrude and Marie, were outbound travelers from Gulu as we arrived a fortnight ago, so Saskia and I are the filthy dirty and slightly tired returnees tonight.
In the bathroom, washing my hands, I glare at a brown stain on the drying towel. Until I notice my own hands leaving an even larger stain underneath. The dust from traveling will permeate my clothes for weeks. The memories, I hope, for a good deal longer.
A group of German students is upstairs, lost in their own company. Some Americans headed north ask Saskia about the outbreak of sickness in Kitgum, and she assures them that it is only the pneumonic plague. They should carry on to Gulu regardless. Aren’t we just the grizzled veterans now?
I feel inadequate as someone whose only skill is to write. Others do more. They save lives, they build things.
I’ve no idea what the time actually is as I crash into my squeaking, complaining bed and tangle myself tiredly in the mildly-torn mosquito net. I barely care. I’m too exhausted. Six Months in Sudan is snug in my bag, down in the darkness beneath my bunk. I’ve promised somewhere on this journey to lend it to Saskia, and make a mental note to remember to do so as I lie dissolving my tension into the sheets.
The story in that book still troubles me. I feel inadequate as someone whose only skill is to write. Others do more. They save lives, they build things. They leave the world of the material fundamentally altered for their efforts. What do I offer in comparison?
I would come to realise, only two days later, the value of words. I would find myself hastily scrawling what became Why the Swallow Migrates on the back of a napkin as I watched East Africa below. I would realise that without the words, the stories and the knowing, there can never be justice. It’s not enough, but it’s the ephemeral bedrock on which clinics are built, lives are saved, tyrants are thwarted.
Half a year later, in the midst of frantically reading journal papers for late-night research handin, a quotation in lieu of an introductory paragraph by some inspired academic stopped me dead.
”Lucky are the people of Yugoslavia and Somalia as the world’s eyes rest on them. Condemned are the people of Juba … It may be a blessing to die in front of a camera – then at least the world will get to know about it. But it is painful to die or be killed, without anybody knowing it.”
Hand-written letter smuggled out from the besieged Southern Sudanese town of Juba, August 1992.
The heaviest of smiles. Stories matter.