PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Uganda Journal, Day 11

Travel in Uganda is all part of the experience. And our journey from Adjumani back to Entebbe was indeed quite the experience.

Our original plan was to take the bus — it would have been far cheaper, albeit less comfortable, and we wanted to be good stewards of our funds. Unfortunately, we went to book it too late in the week, and the Sunday morning bus was full.

We explored a few options, including an overnight bus or perhaps busing back Monday morning and then going straight to the airport. I nixed that idea. I like to be a good steward and all but I also know my limits, and taking a 10-hour (if we were lucky) African bus and then going through the traffic of Kampala straight to the airport to begin a 34-hour ride home would have taxed my limits, and I was afraid it would break me, or at least render me useless for a good week — and I needed to be back at work the day after I arrived.

We finally decided that the best option was to see if we could find a driver at the last minute and as luck would have it, we did. I was a bit nervous about a driver we didn’t know. Drivers can be aggressive, pass on hills and take unnecessary risks. To be honest, my only trepidation about this whole trip was my concern about transportation safety.

Fortunately, Jacob was an outstanding driver, far safer and more careful than anyone we had. I realized this almost immediately. It was a dry and windy day, and the dirt on the roads was blowing. When a car was in front of you, it created blizzard like conditions — only worse because the red clay dirt tornado created zero visibility immediately.

I suspect had we had our first driver, he would have tried to pass in the storm —completely unsure of who was bearing down on us — and barreled on until he came to the next vehicle, and passed again. Jacob, however, slowed down and let the cars get ahead of us, which was the safest route.

The good news was we only had dirt roads for the first hour and a half of our journey. Previously, half the way to Entebbe was unpaved, but one of the positives of accepting refugees was increased infrastructure, including new paved roads.

The Chinese did the paving — they secure the hearts and minds of the Ugandan people by helping with development tasks, hiring Ugandans to do it and then securing mineral rights in the process. Not a bad way to develop — both a country and relationships.

John, Denise, our translator, Daniel, and his brother, John, were in the vehicle. When we dropped John off near the refugee camp where he lived, there was a group of people waiting for a bus to Gulu. Rural buses come at random times, so they simply sit and wait until one comes. A friend of Daniel’s was among the crowd, and Daniel asked if we could give him a ride to Gulu. Not thinking twice, we said yes.

Not long after Simon, Daniel’s friend, had joined us, we were flagged down by members of the military. It isn’t uncommon for police to flag you down on the road — basically they are looking for some “insurance” money from the driver, so that they will come and help you if you need them. If it sounds like extortion, it is.

However, this was the first time military pulled us over. They completely ignored John, Denise and I, but they wanted Daniel and Simon’s papers.  Daniel had his passport, with an outdated student visa, but all Simon had was a piece of paper. Getting a passport from a failing nation state like South Sudan is hard when you are fleeing it while being attacked.

Now to be fair, I don’t fully understand what the rules are regarding movement of refugees or what exactly was happening, but I do know that this soldier continued to harangue Simon until Simon returned his paper with 20,000 shillings. After that, the soldier told me to move over, and he sat next to me, with his loaded AK 47 pressed hard against my leg as motioned for Jacob to take off driving. We drove past the armed vehicle that his fellow soldiers were in, and he motioned for them to take off as well. And off we went, on a joy ride with a loaded rifle pressing into my flesh.

I honestly don’t know how far we drove. All I know was that it was silent in our vehicle, and it was far enough for there to be a distinct mark on my leg from the AK 47 when the soldier finally told Jacob to pull over, and he got out to rejoin a group of soldiers. Before he got out, he looked at me and asked, with a laugh, “Did my rifle bother you.” To which I responded with complete understatement, “A little bit.”

After he left, I gave 20,000 Shillings to Simon. He initially refused, but Daniel told him it would make me feel better. It did. It was frustrating to see the most vulnerable — those who have literally nothing — shaken down. But I also know that the soldiers get their pay this way, too. It is a vicious cycle, were those that are in power prey upon those that don’t. I can’t always make it right but this time I could.

We continued on to Gulu, where we stopped briefly so I could purchase some indigenous crafts at a local market. I was glad to be able to buy them directly from the crafters, and I did not bargain because the prices were so outstanding to begin with.

Shortly after leaving Gulu, Daniel asked if we could visit a refugee village where one of his mothers and sisters lived. I will be writing later more about Daniel’s whole story, as it is fascinating, but for the purpose of this blog, suffice it to say that anyone who says they have a complicated blended family structure has NOTHING on the Sudanese.

To get there, we had to venture past the slums in one of the towns we were driving through. It was a small slum — nothing like the slums of Kampala, but the difference between the refugee camps and the slums was evident. Slums are where hope goes to die in developing countries — with people living in squalor, taken advantage of by everyone, crime rampant and filth abundant.

The camp itself, further up the road, was more developed and an interesting contrast to what we had seen in the north. These folks had been here for a while, and it felt very much like a settled village. We visited with Daniel’s family —gracious and kind — and before we left, his mother prayed for us. I never cease to be astounded by African spirituality. The level of gratitude and understanding of the power of prayer continued to humble me.

We drove back to the main road after this diversion, continuing our journey to Kampala, repeatedly being pulled over by police who were checking our driver’s records. Then, at one point, we passed a lights blaring military procession headed north on the road. It was clear something was happening but as it is the case in places like Uganda, no one is ever likely to know what it was. The papers were quiet the next morning. As African rulers go, Uganda’s leader isn’t bad — a far cry from the days of Idi Amin. But it nonetheless is an authoritarian autocracy, where a strong man and military power rule the day.

Finally, we arrived in Kampala, and then our driver’s one limitation quickly became apparent. He had never driven in Kampala. You could tell with his tentativeness that this was not going to go well. Driving in a Kampala is an act of aggression — cars and motorcycles everywhere, no clear lanes, people walking amidst the traffic and a continuous surge forward. Also, he had no idea where he was going and no GPS.

After a series of starts and stops, with him on his phone, clearly desperate, he finally pulled over and we waited. And we waited. And we waited. Finally, a friend came driving up to us on a Boda Boda (motorcycle taxi) and got into the car and started driving. He had asked a friend in Kampala to come and help us. People are good that way.

We made it downtown without incident, dropping Daniel off so he could visit his mother in the heart of the city. I had one gut-wrenching moment when a woman and a tiny baby came up to the vehicle looking for money as we waited for the light to change. Although I know John would have despised it, and as someone who has worked with homeless I know it is wrong to support that behavior, had my window been able to open I would have given her 10,000 shillings. The face of the baby and the look on the mother’s face haunted me and even if it was as much for me as for her, sometimes you do what you know you aren’t supposed to do. The world is broken, and a Band-Aid won’t fix it, but sometimes you just need to try. But the light changed before I could lower the window and we took off.

Ironically, we took off the wrong way down a one way street. I realized it as soon as I saw the lights ahead and alerted everyone rather loudly. Fortunately, the driver responded quickly, and we got turned around before we died. But that is a metaphor for how I felt at the light with the child — feeling as though she was on a one way ready to crash, and perhaps I could have helped turn her around, even for a day. But instead, I will see that face in the window of the dark night.

Yes, by this time it was dark of night. And we still weren’t at our hotel. Over 12 hours after we left, for what should have been a perhaps 9- to 100-hour ride. And so we drove, and we drove, and we drove. Kampala is seemingly endless, and it’s an even longer road to Entebbe, on Lake Victoria, where the airport is and our hotel was.

Finally, we were close — but still not there. In fact, we drove past the turn off to our hotel not once, not twice but at least three times before we finally managed to end up at the African Roots hotel — over 13½ hours after we left! Some journeys just seem to go on and on.

After arriving and settling in to our rooms, which I was sharing with a rather adorable little lizard that crept in with my bags, I sat back to reflect. This journey that took so many twists and turns along the way, finally ended as the last day of my 53rd journey around the sun ended. Tomorrow would be my 53rd birthday. I was relieved to have one journey over, and excited about what the next day —and the next journey around the sun — would entail. Because life is what happens while you are on the way.

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