Amused, bewildered or annoyed, this morning Uganda woke up to the new reality of social media taxes. Figuring out a way to pay those ridiculous daily 200 shillings (or circumvent the system) had to take priority over choosing a Sunday service outfit that your pastor may notice…
This white Ugandan (OK, birders would probably call me Spotted Pink Ugandan) is celebrating, however. The second half of 2018 has officially begun! In other words: I have managed to survive the six most challenging months of my life…
* * *
The story begins on 18 December 2017 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Picture an African city with beautifully paved main roads, policemen directing the traffic from pedestals in the middle of it all, shared minibuses and passenger bikes cruising by colourful mobile network advertisements. A car has turned off, onto one of the murram side “avenues” with romantically flowery names, to one of the cheapest accommodation solutions of Goma. The Toyota driven by impressive residential buildings with tall walls and distinct local architecture — towers from which watchmen can better observe the happenings on the street — to stop in front of Shu-Shu Guest House. But a $20 establishment won’t have free wireless, so we soon end up on the other side of a roundabout, at Bassin du Congo Hotel, for a meal with internet benefits.
“We” are a trio. I am joined by Shadia Ntwari, a Rwandan former resident of Goma, fluent in French, present to translate for Ian Cantwell, an Irish historian. I have brought Ian back to our part of Africa to help me compile the history and make sense of the present of Eastern Congo, to add it to the Gorilla Highlands region. He has first visited the mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park, an activity that makes a two-week tourist visa to the DRC a piece of cake to obtain. We linked up in the morning and our work is about to begin.
But the day is defined by an afternoon international phone call.
My opportunity to say no to a life.
In the quiet green area behind the kitschy statues that adorn the hotel’s parking I walk and squat and walk again for a very long time, the phone glued to my head.
My partner has conceived, after being told by a doctor that she can’t, and we have to decide what to do about it. The timing is crazy. Most inconveniently, she would be heavily pregnant during Gorilla Highlands Silverchef, the regional cooking competition we prepare together. We already have three children from previous relationships but we did chat about producing a baby one day, some years from now. Yet fate often plays silly tricks on those who try to plan…
I can feel her wanting the baby with all her heart, despite the rational words flowing from Kampala, Uganda. What about me, what do I want?
* * *
It’s a month later and I’m on the other extreme side of my sphere of interest, not far from the border with Kenya.
When outsiders think of Africa they can’t always imagine its astonishing diversity. It’s the world’s second-biggest continent and has the highest human DNA variety, helping prove an African origin for all of us. … But what if we looked only at Uganda, a country slightly smaller than Great Britain and somewhere between the size of Texas and California?
The southwestern and the northeastern corner of Uganda are like two different planets. It’s not only the landscapes, it’s the cultures too; the brown-skinned Bantus of the south are of a very different origin than the charcoal-black Nilotic peoples.
In short, a resident of Kabale (Uganda) has much more in common with a person from Musanze (Rwanda) or Bukavu (Congo) than with the people of Moroto (Uganda). The concept of the transboundary Gorilla Highlands region that I have been developing the last seven years is not an artificial one. National borders are.
It so happens that I am also in love with that very different world of eastern Uganda. Yet it really should, in my mind, be a different travel destination.
For the Gorilla Highlands Bootcamp 2017 I sketched the map on the left, because Theo Vos was with us. Inspired by what we have done with the Gorilla Highlands idea, our Dutch-Karamojong friend wants to build something similar in the east of Uganda, and I have enthusiastically offered my help. The pink and yellow colours are meant to roughly define the two different areas, nevertheless the natural barrier is the river Nile.
Theo is in Europe in mid January, so we crisscross the Karamoja region by ourselves, a bus of keen hikers from a variety of African mountaineering clubs. It’s meant to be my desperately-needed holiday but instead my priority becomes, wherever we go, to find electricity and internet. A well-intended designer with too much on his plate has been delaying me for months, and now I’m making corrections on my laptop instead of sweating up and down fascinating slopes that few travellers have ever walked.
It is a bitter first taste of a string of letdowns that will define the first half of 2018, but thankfully I don’t know that yet.
I only know I will have a son.
* * *
The one climb I do join is too tantalising to skip. The plan is to make it high into Mount Moroto rising majestically above the namesake town, pitch tents under the Imagat peak and continue hiking next day. The base camp is at the Catholic mission in Tapac where Father Jimmy resides, the trouble maker from the Philippines.
If district politicians could only get rid of him… He is at the heart of a local peaceful rebellion against cutting down Elpas forest, the 20,000 pine trees planted by the British after World War II. A source of water and medicinal plants, Elpas is invaluable to the people living around it.
… Or to a mountaineer hiking towards the summits of Moroto. After long hours in the sun, the shade and coolness of the forest high above the plains is profoundly refreshing. The Elpas growth is the breath of the hills, and the livelihood for the manyatas scattered over the foothills.
A manyata is a traditional small constellation of huts within a common fence, amazing in its patterns. As I return by myself after a night of high-altitude camping (back to work, work, work), I ask my guide if we can enter a village next to the trail.
And so an experience that every traveller dreams about takes place… I show my hosts video footage from Congo (they have probably never seen big lakes) and share some cookies with them. They give me their version of obushera (local beer) in plastic jars and a delicious pumpkin meal on a metallic plate.
I am anything but a shy guy, I believe it doesn’t hurt to ask, but still I am reluctant to express a very peculiar wish… I don’t want to offend the culture or something. In the enclosed social area in the middle of the manyata I noticed a fascinating natural stool. Mhm, is there any chance they could sell it to me?
They are reluctant. They say they could make me a new, better one. I explain I desire that particular one, used and real. … How do you say authentic in Karamojong? In a couple of minutes we agree on a very reasonable price.
Wow. Just wow.
I believe one should not have too much cargo, too many material possessions, to be truly happy. Everything that matters to me can be packed into two bags, and off I go. This stool, however, will follow me for the rest of my life.
It is a memory of a lovely meeting in Karamoja, and of a truly beautiful moment in the first half of 2018. One of the two.
* * *
The rest is … hard to believe?
The Gorilla Highlands booklet I was correcting in eastern Uganda goes into printing in the centre of the country. There’s already a writeup on the disturbing course of publishing snafus but it doesn’t end there; the cover has to be printed thrice before it is passable. The cost? Don’t ask.
The people I arranged a piece of land for, next to Edirisa on the shore of my Lake Bunyonyi, show up ten years later with a peculiar case of amnesia. They forget they have given me permission to build a hut on the edge of their plot. Shocked to the core I ask for, at least, some transitional period. Nope. They want to take over that hut now now. And according to them I should feel lucky because they might actually not take me to court. (Five months later the hut is still idly waiting there, serving little purpose but oh so theirs.)
We don’t just lose the hut, reducing our accommodation to a pathetic 5 beds, we lose access to our beloved site for open-air meals. That means we have to remake the canteen, our main building, to fit up to 40 people. As we start working on the floor, an entire wall collapses. (The toughest rainy season in four decades later destroys our staff home too.)
The guy who has been working for Edirisa since childhood and whose education we have supported, proves to be the most corrupt manager ever (at least among those we have caught red-handed). He is kicked out but the assistant he has employed is given another chance.
This assistant dates a teenage volunteer from America and provides drugs and drinking alibis to two more volunteers. They abruptly leave together and I find myself writing to their parents, concerned about their safety. (The fact that one of them departs Uganda with a black eye and an emptied wallet is somewhat satisfying.)
Another boy from the group is the laziest volunteer I have ever had (a monumental achievement worth celebrating). I take him in as a favour to an old friend, until I have enough and tell his parents he should go. They plead with me for leniency, hoping to avoid paying for an extra flight. My goodwill is repaid in a matter of days: our video camera gets stolen because he, well, doesn’t give a damn about anything.
I’ve invited those three to help us organise GH Silverchef but their eventual absence is not a problem at all. We have enough people, just not enough rooms… The hosts have messed up the bookings and instead of focusing on the cooking competition we deal with accommodation challenges until the very end. (The event also results in a hurtful financial loss.)
Two weeks later two British tourists get kidnapped in Virunga National Park and a lady ranger killed. The park closes and won’t reopen till 2019, making Ian’s research in Goma, Bukavu and Lwiro kinda premature.
My fiancé packs everything and moves to Kabale for a C-Section scheduled for next morning. The scan shows the baby should stay in. His lungs are not fully developed.
* * *
…. And those are just the shortlisted misfortunes. Some developments that would be dramatic any other year pale in comparison to my synopsis, hence don’t deserve a mention.
Yet I still have hope. Because of something that happened at GH Silverchef in Kigali (Rwanda) at the end of April.
I had been an organiser of outdoor events for decades, and 99% of them transpired in perfect weather. This unbelievable track record had led me to believe that somebody up there was rooting for me. GH Silverchef, an event to take place outside during a historic rainy season, would be a proper test. Had I done something bad to the small or big gods, or maybe not?
It was sunny and wonderful throughout the competition, networking event, fam trip and the award presentation ceremony. It stopped raining shortly before we started and began again shortly after we were done.
So it wasn’t about the divine. It was about the people. It was about me.
* * *
On 15 June 2018 at 1pm a healthy, handsome and pensive baby boy was born at Kabale Regional Referral Hospital. The operation took less than 30 minutes and the surgeons’ work was mind-blowing, but I will leave that story to the mother.
We are two very digital parents, aware of what online presence means. We think our son should decide when (or if) he wants to be indexed, searched, analysed and sold to advertisers. Therefore there will be no pictures online, at least for now.
He is perfect, though.
There’s a unique sort of happiness that washes over you when you become a parent. Nothing else matters.
It took me a whole day to write this, with some minor interruptions. From early afternoon on I kept an eye on a dashboard clock that ticks in the rhythm of California.
That’s Jon Lee’s time and he is my superpower. A volleyball instructor on the beach of Santa Barbara, a retired English teacher and, a little bit earlier in his eventful life, a TV announcer, a sports journalist. Whenever I deeply care about a piece of writing, I send a draft to Jon.
Coach Lee was there for me two years ago when I began Miha’s Blog and is still at hand 20 instalments later when I am ending it. The nature of the Gorilla Highlands website and the Gorilla Highlands initiative is about to change, and I don’t see a proper fit anymore.
I was folding 46 blankets and 53 sheets and counted 27 pairs of gumboots in the setting sun — helping with a stock take of our trekking gear — when Jon’s wise suggestions trickled back.
But it wasn’t the story that I was contemplating during the night swim that followed. Under the dark blue skies punctuated by thousands of faint lights, floating on 10,000 years of water that has filled a grand valley in the middle of Africa, I thought about myself.
About a week ago a Slovenian journalist and popular travel writer, Jan Konečnik, paid me a visit. After the World Cup match between Nigeria and Argentina we dived into a discussion about journalism, the profession I studied for. I heard myself saying that building your own economic base is the only sure way to becoming a truly independent journalist/media producer and be able to do what is right.
Yet, what is there to my name at 44 years of age? Disinterested in material gains I have let others steal or waste the money I earned, probably looking like a fool in their selfish eyes. Not merely in 2018, in the last 18 years…
For the sake of my baby boy and the other three children who depend on me, I unfortunately have to begin full-heartedly doing what I am profoundly averse to:
1) Assume everyone is a thief. I was raised to presume people are good until proven otherwise. I was astonished to realise, quite early in my two decades in Africa, that it is different here: you are guilty until proven innocent. Every unknown person is treated with suspicion first, be it in Uganda or Rwanda. Locals have a point, and I just have to take it.
2) Supervise, supervise, supervise. The fact that this epilogue found me counting our equipment is an indicator of an encouraging trend.
In short, the end of laziness, the end of joking. Time to become a billionaire; in shillings, francs or dollars. Without abandoning the Gorilla Highlands initiative, just doing everything a little bit differently. There will be more Pocket Guides, more volunteers and more Silverchefs … but the money won’t be coming from my pocket ever again.
I’m too good to be too good.
text and visuals: Miha Logar