Memories from an upcountry Christmas

One of the highlights of my brief Christmas break to the village came when a distant relative sought to know by what means I had travelled from wherever I had been.
The writer and his nieces, all in new attire on Christmas Day. The New Times/Courtesy
The writer and his nieces, all in new attire on Christmas Day. The New Times/Courtesy

One of the highlights of my brief Christmas break to the village came when a distant relative sought to know by what means I had travelled from wherever I had been.

When I let him in on my mode of travel, he was evidently disappointed in me, and made no secret of his disappointment. To him, a man travelling across borders had to do so in style –and by style, I mean, by air.

 

Well, I travelled by Jaguar, and the last time I checked, it had never been a flying object. I hopped onto a Jaguar bus to Kampala, en route to the village, and immediately I and a friend were on board, I begun to encounter the same problems I’ve been through since I started bus travel. Problems like …

 

The confusing sitting arrangement: In the olden days, buses had no bus seats had no numbers at all, and taking of seats was on first-come-first-serve basis. Then, in the name of customer choice, seat numbers were introduced, in that you now booked your ticket and it came complete with your own seat number clearly indicated in bold.

 

While most buses have the seat numbers printed at the back of the head rests for each seat, others have the numbers engraved on the luggage cabin above the respective seats. One thing is for sure though; both have got their fair share of attendant complications, to the extent that most bus fights and cat fights and brawls have got something to do with mixed-up seats.

While the seat numbers at the back of seats seem like the more sensible option, it is actually just as confusing. Are you supposed to sit on the actual seat that bears the seat number on your ticket, or is it the seat directly behind the indicated number?

The resultant confusion makes for the biggest number of bus fights I’ve witnessed, as warring passengers tussle out for a particular seat.  Seat numbers that hung from above on the luggage cabin do not fare any better. For how does a passenger know that if the numbering is from left to right, or otherwise? If say the notice reads 18, 19, 20, how do you know if 18 is the seat by the bus corridor, or the one to the window?

Border issues

Of course, I have many bones to pick with our border authorities on both sides. The first issue I had was with the toilet attendant at the public facility on the Ugandan side of Gatuna, whose language skills are quite below par for a man manning such a vital office, more so at a border point, where a host of regional and international languages are expected to be at play. 

Not that I expected a Literature graduate on the job, but I at least expected someone with a fare grasp of Swahili, English, Kinyarwanda, French, Luganda, at the very least. His only comfort zone seemed to be Luganda.

The second issue is with the guys who change money. Why doesn’t someone take up the task of dressing up these chaps in uniform, the way Tigo has done with the taxi motos?

Cross border travel also afforded me the opportunity to assess the pace of regional integration at the interpersonal level, in the wake of a resurgent and bigger East African Community. 

For instance, what is the acceptable or politically correct language to speak on a bus carrying passengers from Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania? While our Kenyan and Tanzanian friends will naturally resort to Swahili, a Ugandan is likely to choose from English, some improvised Swahili, or Luganda. Meanwhile, their Rwandan counterpart will show up with English, French, or Kinyarwanda, but at the end of the day, some form of communication has got to take place.

While at home in Gulu, Northern Uganda, it again occurred to me that on the whole, upcountry folk still live with a happiness, innocence and contentment that is hard to fathom in a city setting.

Talking of rural innocence, I came across a teenage girl with the inscription, “Love is for suckers” emblazoned across her tight fitting black top. The first day, I met her going home from doing the market rounds, and was amused. The second day, I met the same girl on her way to a wedding at the nearby born-again church, and I was kind of scandalised. Yes, because she was going to a wedding, and not just any wedding, but of a born-again couple!

I also noticed that our African mothers still prefer to see their African sons with a bit of fat around the tummy, or at least under their skin, and if possible, some bulbous, oily cheeks, not the reedy and sinewy piles that we have of late degenerated into.

I noticed that home food is still the best, and need I explain this further?

I also noticed that a huge base for local gangsters and street types and substance smokers had crept up behind the sugarcane bush behind our home.  

They are there all day and all night, creating huge plumes of white smoke, laughing and goofing around like maniacs, heckling females ranging from six year-olds to people’s granny’s, thumping hard core street music from their phones, and generally being a nuisance. 

But my biggest problem with them is that they had turned vermin on my sugar cane plantation which had proved a good source of dessert because who needs pawpaws and melons for dessert?

Village people bury their dead as a matter of duty, and when they are grieved, they seem genuinely grieved. Not the lazy and impersonal R.I.P messages that we post out on our social media profiles whenever a friend in our circle passes on.

Rural dwellers still take immense pride in their primary source of information, the radio. Actually, radio still embodies gospel truth to the vast majority. Once, in the middle of an argument, a protagonist quotes a radio personality, that argument is presumed automatically sealed.

Village people also love their news and what is trending, and unlike you the town dwellers, they do not resort to Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Email and the BBC and Al Jazeera for the latest global trends and happenings. These people are still hugely loyal to their radios, at a time when the radio medium now boasts a penetration that reaches right at the grassroots, literally.

So when I went and sat at a local shop to sample a few of the favorite local beer brands (which came warm, of course), one of the visibly drunken patrons looked to my side and loudly challenged  me to a hot news item that had just aired at the top of the hour.

Surprisingly, and shamelessly, he only managed to come up with the name of the place where the event occurred, not the event itself. As in, he was not in position to say what that very juicy news item had been to warrant his enthusiasm, but instead put me to task to explain how I had missed such a big scoop.

Then, without warning, and with a lot of menace and anger written on his face, he dashed for the shop door, which was crowded with festive shoppers, and disappeared into the darkness. Several minutes later, he shot back into the shop, this time armed with a portable radio. 

After dramatically making himself comfortable in his seat, he turned to me with a look of utter contempt combined with disgust, unmasked his radio from its weather-beaten leather pouch, and again, ever so dramatically, tuned it.

In the village, there is no fuss about drinking water. If anything, water is water, and water is life. See, in the towns, water has several second best options whenever it gets scarce. It is normal to see a person walk into a shop and, failing to find ice cold bottled water, instead opts for a soda or juice or beer or yoghurt or Red Bull or Power Horse to quench their thirst. Deep in the village, all these are distant luxuries.

Equally, boiling of drinking water is considered a plain waste of time by the large majority. Then there are those who boil only water from natural sources like wells and springs, but when they save a coin to buy a 20 liter Jerrycan of tap water, they will see absolutely no need to boil it. Why boil tap water?

Water is kept in huge clay pots in most homes. Usually it is stationed at a corner of the kitchen or living room, while in a few posh village homes, another pot will be reserved for the master bed room, for the exclusive use of the man and woman of the house. 

They are the simplest version of a refrigerator as they keep the water just cool enough. The only problem with this pot as a store for drinking water is the way in which water is drawn from it, in that the hygiene of anyone drawing water from it affects all that drink from it. In any case, hardly do people wash their hands from wherever they could have been but they will go on to pick a cup and draw water from the pot.

Others, especially kids or tired and stressed people have got a habit of pouring back the leftover of their drinking water into the pot, while children occasionally dip their entire arms into the pot in a haste to return to their play. 

This makes the subject of drinking water a tricky one for most urbanites while upcountry, and I perfectly understand the situation where some go ahead and stick to bottled water while the rest of the family drinks from the village well.

Other than boil water, most people instead prefer to use a water purification tablet called Water Guard that is very popular in practically every village I’ve been to across the region.  The trick with it is that it is totally hustle free, unlike that business of boiling water.

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