02 September 2013

Muzungu in the Mist, cont.

After Queen Elizabeth, I took a break from the animals and headed to the Rwenzori Mountains, or Mountains of the Moon (when – not if – you come to Uganda, you should go a bit slower than I did. The trip was amazing, but also a bit more breakneck that was probably good for me). I stayed in the valley village of Ruboni at what turned out to be my favourite venue. The food was, without question, the best (instead of tasteless omelets and coleslaw sandwiches, I had cinnamon pancakes smeared with local honey and vegetable curry. Not together. Some people adjust to the vegetarian thing better than others). The ‘community camp’ offered hot water and a great mattress; at this point, I could care less about the pit toilet and even the mosquito infestation. When the power went out, I was equipped with candles. The whole effect was quite romantic, in the aesthetic sense. Of course, the absolutely stunning location helped.
The camp was run by a coöperative that owns the land abutting the national forest, having turned it into a conservation area. A row of flowering red trees demarcated the border, acting as a buffer to reduce negative farmer/animal interactions. It was also working with farmers to stop erosion of the steep crop plots and introduce more efficient agriculture techniques. It did all this, of course, through tourist dollars. All of which allowed me to give myself an utterly unearned pat on the back.

I mostly passed the day traipsing over the hills and through the jungles. Elloy, my guide, was less chatty than Michael of the Salt Lake, but also gruffly efficient. This area was probably the most impoverished I visited in Uganda. I kept remarking on how beautiful it was and he threw me some serious shade. He couldn’t really see it what I meant, but allowed that, since you people keep telling us it is, so it must be. He then opined that maybe he would go to the States and find it beautiful. Poof! went my unmerited sense tourist pride. Ruboni is where I came to the conclusion that this type of trip is probably better is not experienced alone. It is less a question of outright solitude that the lack of having someone with whom to share your joy and awe, because the locals really aren’t feeling it. Some appreciate it, though, while others are vaguely hostile to it. Vacationing in truly poverty-stricken areas is often an uncomfortable experience, knowing, for example, that the staff is ensuring that you are staying at a level of comfort they will never experience themselves. This is true of many posh hotels in the West as well, of course, and also true of Bunia (which is something I will almost certainly discuss in a future post). But the sense of guilt seemed more acute here, where I was often the only tourist in sight.
As we toiled (well, I toiled. He bounded like a pro. Which I suppose he is) up the steep hill, he shared a wealth of information with regard to the habits of locals and plant life. He pointed out the best trees for making carvings or building houses, a flower that can be used as a substitute for cotton, a tree whose bark can be used for cloth. It only got more colourful from there. There were the trees that are planted in a circle to mark graves. There was tree whose long, bulbous fruit is used in beer, and also by young girls and boys to measure their breasts and penises against – tradition holds that they’ll grow as large as the selected fruit. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be on either end of that deal. Then there was the touch-me-not, so-called because its fruit springs off the vine when so much as grazed, but really known as a plant that encourages sociability in children. The small green fruit is quite sweet, and local kids will spend hours at a patch, popping them at one another and chasing them down the hills. There was also the tree out of which they make traditional xylophones, which are played for days after a death so that the spirit doesn’t curse the living. Also during circumcision rituals. When I asked boys or girls, he was quick to answer boys. He paused. Traditionally, it was for the ladies, also. Which might be the nicest description of FGM I’ve ever heard.

There were myriad other medicinal and practical plants (like those preferred in treatment of syphilis or used as makeshift candles) that I’m forgetting. Elloy reminded me that the first line of medical defense here is always homeopathic. Then reflected that it was not good. Not always having a keen understanding of what ails them, villagers can easily ingest a plant to treat a cough, only to die of malaria. I was actually familiar with these challenges, as we face the same proclivities in our medical programming.

In additional to marveling at the scenery, I expressed amazement at the people who have to make this trek daily to work the fields and cart their harvests of yams and passion fruit and coffee and Irish potatoes back down on their heads, barefoot through the fire ants and saw grass, often as not carrying a baby. As I might have expected, Elloy was bemused at my amazement. Do women in Congo not do the same with their children? Sure they do, and they impress the hell out of me, too. I fell at least five times on the way down, but he mostly just slid gracefully in his galoshes and suit pants.
I had hoped that the hike would afford me a, in the parlance of the many brochures and every single local I met, view the snow-capped peaks of Ruwenzori, but it was too cloudy. Next time, perhaps. Instead, as we made our way down from the hills, night descended in time with us, the sun setting and mist creeping down from the higher mountain. It had the same tangible opacity as in Bwindi, seemeing to swallow the hills and forest and town like a benevolent version of The Nothing.

As we made our way back to the camp, Elloy described the historic flooding earlier this year that knocked out the hydroelectric dam that powers the nearby cobalt mine in addition to the town and has been in operation since the Canadian government built it in the 1950s. It also wiped away foot bridges, farms, and over a dozen people. The town was still in the process of recovering. Elloy complained bitterly that the government had been little to no help; they apparently felt that any rebuilding efforts they undertook would be gone within years if not months. He asked several times if I was certain that we only work in Congo. I so much wanted to help, and felt so guilty that I could not, that I just ended up over-tipping.
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned, Gordon and I had a number of…interesting conversations, including discussions of baboon assassination for defecating in one’s car, and why it is preferable to marry a woman with small breasts. But when he shared the story about the night dancers that evening, I decided it might all have been worth it. Night dancers are apparently shamans who dance about your house at night (thus the name). Naturally, they do so naked, cloathed only in human remains. Their nefarious purpose is to steal your good will, leaving their bad luck at your door by literally slamming their nude bum against the front door. Their magic paralyses you in your sleep so that you are helpless to stop them. Then there was something about cash dowries and water magic and complicit wives. At any rate, his family, realizing that they had long been the target of one of these black conjurors, played a trick on the night dancer by leaving their doors unlatched and remaining standing throughout the night to that the paralytic magic had no chance to take effect (side note – for such powerful magi, they seem remarkably easy to thwart). The night dancer fell through their door wearing only bones and a woman’s breast, which he kept that way (what way? Firm? Round? Rose-tipped? It was never specified) with his magics. Gordon’s mother declared that now that God had let her see the night dancer’s face, her family would be protected from him. He then had to pay her two cows. Afterward, his wife died and he lost his fortune and now he doesn’t even have enough money to buy his own soda. WTF.

Also in the analogs of crazy Gordon stories, he was suffering from back pains throughout the trip, which is no small thing given how much time we spent driving. When I suggested that he go to the doctor, he said that he already had and that the doctor said what he needed was a girlfriend. I…have suspicions about the legitimacy of this diagnosis.
After Rwenzori, I set out for my last full day of safari – this time to Kibale to see the chimps. Theoretically, you travel in groups of no more than seven. While this was strictly enforced for gorilla trekking, only one of the 13 chimp communities in the forest is habituated for tourists (the communities each contain more than 100 chimps and can take up to seven years to habituate) and so it was that I found myself in a group of nearly 20 German tours. The babble of the tourists did little to diminish brilliance of the experience, if it did lead to more competition for good photo angles. Each of the chimps had names and the guides knew them by sight, sharing their stories (this one was the second alpha, or vice president. That one had broken his arm some 12 years ago, but was among the most popular with the ladies. She got her name because the rangers felt she had the nicest eyes in the community). We moved with the chimps for just over an hour. My two favourites shared a log companionably, passing palm fronds back and forth without ever taking their eyes off of the female perched 50 feet above them and with whom they both wanted to mate. It was hard not to giggle at how much this reminded me of high schools, with the girls watching the boys watching the girls go by. That was, until they decided they were done waiting and several males chased the female they’d been ogling through the canopy, screaming at one another. The noises were a bit…unsettling.
Were he human, I would have accused him of being a creeper
As we trekked back to the visitor center, I chatted with the rangers, especially the younger guide who was toting the AK. When I asked if it was also for forest elephants, she laughed. All rangers in Uganda have to undergo six months of military training, as the national parks have long been a favourite hiding place of rebel groups throughout the Great Lakes region. It’s now considered good form to ensure that rangers, animals, and tourists all have some measure of protection. She had just completed her training and was newly installed at Kibale. Her parents in western Uganda were despairing of her ever finding a man while in the forest service. She was only 26, but already her mother was convinced she would end up a spinster. I wanted us to be friends.
After the chimps came baboons and colobuses (colobui?) in a wetland conservation that was established by a Peace Corps volunteers over 20 years ago. The proceeds went to support locals – reimbursing them for food stolen by the monkeys, improve school system, etc. The colobuses, despite completely captivating me, are apparently quite the local menaces. The black and white are skittish. The locals used to skin them for ceremonial garb, and now tend to stone them for stealing crops (a feat at which they excel. My guide found their skillful thievery perplexing, given that they lack an opposable thumb. Indeed, the word colobus even means ‘something missing). Meanwhile, the reds are aggressive and not uncommonly challenge chimps, even without provocation. However, even in sizable groups they are no match for the larger animal and are frequently eaten for their troubles (I had no idea that chimps were so carnivorous). The wetlands were home to about five types of plants that render animals drunk – one for elephants, another for chimps, red colobuses (getting smashed makes them even more belligerent. They really are just like us!), even humans (the local gin is made out of sugar cane). My guide also encouraged me to keep an eye out for snakes, particularly cobras and green mambas. The mambas like to climb trees, making them a real treat to find. I was more worried about them falling on my head (it was a day to fear the sky. The chimps would release their waste while perched high in the canopy and seemed to take special delight in making the tourists scatter).
During the long drive back to Entebbe, Gordon and I didn’t have all that much more to say. Mostly he was just planning my next trip out (with my parents. He especially wants to meet my father. We could come visit his mother in Bwindi! Joy). We did stop briefly to take one more walk through the foot hills outside of Fort Portal and wander through a lovely waterfall with a violently colourful history. The story goes that a beautiful young maiden refused to marry the wealthy man chosen by her father, having given her heart to a poor local boy. As a punishment, her father cut off her breast and threw it in the woods. She vanished, but the water in the falls is still tinted white by her milk, while all the rocks grow in the shape of breasts (not all human. Some resembled the teats of cows, dogs, and in two very special cases, muzungus.  I didn't feel the need to comment on the fact that muzungus were included in the 'non-human' category). My guide helpfully pointed out that they were not in fact breasts, but were actually stalactites. Gee, thanks.

My last weekend in Uganda was blessedly quiet. I just puttered around Entebbe, enjoyed the lake view, and slept in. On the last night, I returned to that pizza joint. The waiter remembered my name and order. While I did not mind eating in the company my book, but the restaurant’s owner (rather her nephew, at her urging) invited me join her family for dinner. She often takes pity on the lonely expats, explaining that she understands how it is to be far from home. She is a Rwandan who came to Uganda in 1995. One guess as to why. Her nephew, who she raised as her own after his parents were killed in the genocide, is now working on a book about a modern history of Africa. We discussed strong men and fluid definitions of democracy in Africa. It was fascinating. The next day, I headed out to the airport reasonably early, as I did not actually know what time my flight was and got no answer when I called the (tiny, missionary) airline (the airport didn’t know, either, nor did the information desk even have the number for the airline. I was just told to stand in the main terminal until a uniformed employee of the airline wandered through and ask them. Magically, this worked). On my way there, I was briefly detained at a police and made to pass through a separate screening station for no apparent purpose whatsoever. Though it took close to 30 minutes, I was not patted down, my checked luggage was not inspected, and the officer’s examination of my hand luggage was so cursory that she missed the pocket knife. Sigh. Bye, Uganda.