Weekend in Rural Uganda
Having arrived in Kampala four days earlier I knew I had been prepared enough for the adventure. Journey Plan: depart the capital early Friday morning to avoid the city traffic and arrive in time for first meeting. Driving time: 5 hours. Destination: Hoima, North Western Uganda.
I was part of a small group which included reporters from Ghana and Uganda. We drove on a good highway through lush forests and dramatic landscapes. Once in a while, mountain ranges rise from the ground, scrap the horizon and hug the sky.
For an East African country, what is here is much in common with vegetation Ghana. I looked through the window and I saw farms that have maize, sugar cane, pear, mango, cotton and pawpaw. Kilometres later, I took another glance at palm fruit trees, plantains, cassava, nkontomire, garden eggs … It goes on and on. And they tell me they have akrantie, snails, crabs and okro… If you get my drift, God bless you. (Translation problems made it difficult to establish whether there is prekese).
At Rwamata in Kiboga District we made a washroom stop. This place is a trading centre. I saw lots of bicycles and motorbikes. Many hawkers rushed at us. Chief among items being sold was chinchinga (khebabs). There was beef, chicken and mutton all juicily barbecued on long sticks. They looked inviting and I knew they would taste great. I have seen the goats and the cows and fowls since I got here. Trust me, they are all well-fed.
But my palate wasn’t calling for meat. Other options: roasted cassava (long ones, actually), fresh cow milk , some fruits and roasted plantains but without the groundnuts. (I didn’t see ‘pure water’) I went for the plantains.
We resumed the journey, went through more familiar-looking fields and eventually arrived at Hoima and the Bunyoro Kingdom for that matter. We checked in at Hotel Kontiki. I find this name tickling and quite appropriate. The Kontiki Expedition is one of those landmark travels of discoveries, like Mungo Park’s or Christopher Colombus.’
The 1947 travel adventure which has been made into books and films involved six young men who dared the world by sailing on a raft across the Pacific Ocean. It took them 101 days and they survived.
This Kontiki too is surviving. Husband Koojo (his real Ugandan name) and wife Grace said in the beginning it was a wild ambition setting up the business in this remote place. Conscious of the Ghanaian ring to his name (which actually means ‘boy’) Koojo said ‘I am from Ghana.’ In that case, I told him, he has to stop calling his wife Grace. The term is ‘O-Gray.’
Their hotel business has shot up since the smell of oil hit the area. The facility itself comprised round cottages set in a beautiful garden. There is a 30 seater conference room. I saw a stone fountain and two swimming pools. But the greenery and natural, cool environment is what delighted me most. What I enjoyed here during my stay was the early morning tea in the garden.
Hoima town itself is poised to become a beehive of economic activity. As a result of the discovery of oil the place has been upgraded to Municipality status. The hope is that infrastructure would improve to handle the new businesses and new residents. The road we travelled is un-tarred, but residents say it has actually been put in a better condition. The feeling I get is that the people are expectant but they don’t know how much to expect. Land prices, rental rates and other real estate costs in Hoima are going up as demand from Kampala and nearby has increased.
We spent the next day plying the rough road to Buliisa District and back. The journey was eventful as we encountered wildlife of various types. Here, baboons welcome you all the way. Then we saw kobs (they are like deers), actually a delicacy for lions. The bush wisdom is that where you see them a lion might be lurking round.
Ugandan oil deposits are located within an area called the Albertine Basin. At a hilly point of the journey we see Lake Albert. From a distant it looked quiet and still. Like a mirror positioned to capture the clouds. Kabila’s Congo actually shares this lake with Uganda. Beyond the water we see the Blue Mountains, a highland range that is seated entirely in ‘Dr.’ Congo.
When we reached Buliisa I found it as remote as it is deprived. Mercifully, a two million dollar health facility has newly been put up by Tullow. The vegetation in these parts is savannah. The place is within the Great Rift Valley that sweeps across through Kenya. If Buliisa sounds like Ghana’s Builsa please note that there is a town here called Waiga. I leave you to contrast that with our Wiaga, a town found in our Builsa area.
At the District Office we met Fred Lukuma, the loquacious District Chairman (almost like a Regional Minister in Ghana). When he learnt that Ghanaians were around the first thing he asked was ‘How is Ayikwei Armah?’, author of the ‘Beautiful Ones are not yet born.’ The political head said their greatest need in the area is education and training to be able to participate in the oil business.
This complements the aspirations of Isaac Nkuba a civil society leader we had met earlier. Nkuba has- in an attempt to safeguard the community interest- had a brush with the law quite recently. The young man had led a group to make a presentation of local concerns. When asked what he was arrested for he said listlessly, ‘Breaking the Public Order Act.’ I would say he was arrested for over-zealousness; except that in laws there is nothing like ‘over-zealousness.’
In Nkuba’s words, ‘The villagers want to know what they can do. All they hear is rumours and when other people come from far to be employed they are sceptical.’
If this makes you think the community is not engaged you could be forgiven. However, we saw pictures of community meetings and diagrams of communication channels showing local representatives and levels of interactions. After a long day we drove back to Hoima wondering how one can make everybody in a village understand the expectations from this humungous resource called oil.
The writer is author of: Tickling the Ghanaian-Encounters with Contemporary Culture and A Sense of Savannah-Tales of a Friendly Walk through Northern Ghana