From London to Gulu, Uganda

I am heading into being resident in Gulu, Uganda for four weeks and feel like I have signed on to some sort of reality show where the bush survival guru Ray Mears suddenly arrives on my doorstep to tell me that I have qualified as a fully-fledged Girl Scout and to add to that, the winner of the £ Million and a relaxing trip to a fancy spa for a well-earned massage and foot rub!

Boarding Kenya Airways from London Heathrow on 6th June, I flew via Nairobi, Kenya, transferring flights to get to Entebbe. The plane descended and flew low over Lake Victoria which brought thoughts of British Imperial Airways, and the days of the grand voyagers, (the S23-Empire Class Airplanes, giant Sunderland’s) carrying the post and passengers from the United Kingdom to South Africa.

Flying Boats that my grandfather had told me flew on a main route from Southampton in England on to Augusta Italy, stopping and progressing on to Cairo Egypt, then Khartoum, Port Bell Uganda, Victoria falls Rhodesia and then Vaal Dam in South Africa.

Grandpa also told me about other routes via Africa’s Great Rift Valley where the majestic old converted WW2 planes landed on the waters of the Nile, progressing to the massive lakes; Victoria Uganda, Naivasha Kenya, Tanganyika Tanzania, Nyasa Nyasaland, Victoria Falls Rhodesia and on to the Harbour in Durban, where my grandfather was employed as  Imperial’s Port Harbour Master.

As I descended the stairs from my ‘plane to the apron at Entebbe, more memories of the “Entebbe Raid” that took place 4th July, 1976, – a counter terrorist raid carried out by the Israeli commandos came rushing in to my head, here I was standing where an Air France plane with 246 passengers was hijacked by members of the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine and the German Revolutionary Cells and flown to Entebbe.

Clearing customs and immigration took a long time, as twenty Iranian businessmen were in the queue before me and they were obviously important, so had to be hustled through whilst the rest of the passengers waited their turn.

Graham was there to meet me and it was so good to see him after being apart for four months. He had a chauffeur with him, which surprised me as he is a good driver. I sat in the back seat and off we went along the road to Kampala, Uganda’s capital where we were to spend three days in the Protea Hotel before heading to the north and the Gulu Provence.

Oh my word, I have driven in many African countries before, but never experienced such scary driving! There are simply no road rules, everyone to their own! I shut my eyes and opened them and caught Graham looking at me from the front passenger seat with amusement, “You OK Babe?” He asked, “Now you see why I have a Ugandan to drive me in Kampala!”

“That’s for bloody sure!” I retorted, shutting my eyes again whilst I reminisced:
Many years ago, as a teenager living in Malawi, I found myself listening with morbid interest to the tales told to my parents by people who had previously worked in the British Foreign Office in Uganda. These were ex-patriots who had fled the wrath of Idi Amin and the atrocities committed against foreigners living and working in that country. My mother would look my way and see that I was avidly taking in the horror stories of abuse, rape and even murder and slip into murmuring whispers so that I could no longer hear.

I remember a portrait artist telling a florid story about how in the early days of Idi Amin’s rule, she was summoned into his state office and commissioned to do his portrait. At first she said, she thought of him as this delightful “teddy-bear” of a man. But as the weeks went by and time progressed, she saw that he was unpredictable and cruel. She and her husband, (who was a high court judge) had to escape the country or risk death. How they ended up living and working in Malawi did not interest me, but I did wonder if she ever completed the portrait before the teddy-bear turned into a grizzly-bear!

From all the stories I stored in the back-burners of my memory, Uganda always seemed to be a place of tropical jungle, gorillas, heavy thunder-storms, the vast Rift Valley Lake Victoria, unpredictable tribes and the Entebbe Raid. It has always been a place I thought of as “far away and inaccessible “, and likely one of the last places I would ever visit.

Yet, here I am in Gulu, Northern Uganda, about two hundred miles north of the capital, Kampala. In the old days as a British Protectorate, there was a metre gauge railway between the nearby villages of Tororo and Pakwach, but sadly it no longer operates and the only way to get here is by road or by air into the local airport.

There are two main tribes in the area, the Acholi, (who make up about eighty percent of the population) and the Luo. Since the rule of Idi Amin, through to Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army, these tribes have been targeted and attacked.

Later entered Alice Lakwena, heading yet another rebel group, which became the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, – who, along with the government’s army, Uganda’s People’s Defence Force, carried out brutal genocide against these poor people. In the late 1990’s, government forced them into “Internally Displaced Person” camps. Thinly veiled, they were nothing other than concentration camps, where it was reported held in the region of two million people.

International campaigns known as “Stop the Genocide in Northern Uganda,” became prominent and in 2007 these camps were shut down and the survivors released. International pressure on the Ugandan government induced closure of these awful places, and there has been relative peace between the government and the rebel leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony.

The other day I spoke to a man who had been working with the International Red Cross at that time. He told me how approximately 15,000 orphan children, known as “Night Commuters” fled into Gulu’s town vicinities for safety under the cover of darkness every night, fearing abduction and conscription as child soldiers.

Since the peace talks between the government and the rebel LRA, the violence has greatly reduced and seen to economic revitalisation in the district of Gulu. There is a university, district administration centre, a stadium, three hospitals, a management institute, teachers training and agriculture colleges, the airport is second largest in the country, (after Entebbe) thirteen banks, several radio stations, three main hotels, an army base, churches, eating and coffee houses, Rotary Round Table and many, many Voluntary Overseas Organisations from around the world. In fact, I believe at one time there were more than 180 Aid Donor Organisations, some of which had operations closed by government, due to the fact that the young volunteers sent to work here were having too good a time relaxing near the hotel swimming pools, soaking up the Ugandan sunshine and not doing much in the field!

Regardless, there are always foreigners to be seen in the Internet cafés, shopping in Gulu’s markets and driving along in vehicles with various logos emblazoned on the doors advertising a vast variety of Aid Donor organisations. The most interesting of these, in my opinion, is “Invisible Children.” A film has been made on what they are doing to help the crisis in Uganda and it can be watched on the Internet.

After living in the OLAM compound in Morrembala, Mozambique, I find this new place (where Graham is contracted by Patrick Bitature, Simba Group to develop 3000 hectares of virgin land in an area called Palaro into farmland for maize production) more agreeable. At least here I can safely go for a walk, the locals friendly and the village a hive of activity, colour and interest.

It is a far cry from London, but it appears to me that the people here are the same as anywhere, – all working, running errands, shopping and doing what they can to improve their lives.

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