Standort: / Meldung: "The Source of the Nile"

Chris Cummins

Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds.

17. 11. 2012 - 14:32

The Source of the Nile

Uganda celebrated 50 years of independence this autumn. A bike ride across a vibrant, troubled country.

Today, as I was being showered by confetti at a stranger´s wedding in the Ugandan city of Jinja, I realised why I had fallen so deeply and irreversibly in love with Africa in the first place.

african wedding

chris cummins

I hadn’t being back to the continent since a brief stint as a radio journalist in Ghana, and I`d always struggled to explain Africa’s hold on me without resorting to clichés.

Hear Chris Cummins' Ugandan Diary ON AIR on the Fm4 Morning Show November 19th-November 23rd, with a Reality Check Saturday Special on the 24th November

But as I embarrassed myself on the dance-floor and pushed small kids around a red earth driveway on my big bike, I knew it. It`s the spontaneity of the people, their sense of fun and that feeling that on this continent anything, good or bad, might happen at any time.

african children

chris cummins

Jinja is a bustling fairly wealthy city huddled against Lake Victoria at the point where the White Nile emerges from the lake to begin its meandering 6,000km course northwards to the Mediterranean. Many of the wealthy business and political elite from Kampala have second homes here.

The town is also the starting point for my journey - a 500km charity bike ride across the dirt tracks of Uganda with a school improvement project Link Community Development, so, in the bright sharp sun of the early evening, I have just been testing my borrowed bike around the backstreets of the city.

Arriving off a plane is disorientating. The travel is so rapid that you can’t quite believe that you are really on a different continent., But as I pedaled along Jinja`s streets, which were surfaced but still potholed and which were stained red from the laterite earth, everything seemed so evocatively African.

kids in j

chris cummins

The ride was like a check-list of Ugandan animals. I passed a group of massive marabou storks, with their grubby pink necks and ugly wattles that hang from their jowls like streaks of bacon, were pecking among piles of rubbish; picking decomposing edibles from amongst the plastic bags. Tick!

I pedalled past an Ankole-Watusi cow, with long, curved horns the size, shape and colour of elephants’ tusks lying in the shade of a palm tree. Tick!

Bats were hanging from the inner branches of the same palm tree and looking like grey, furry fruits. Tick!

Wooden shacks selling blackened salted fish straight from the lake. Tick!

african cow

chris cummins

But it was from the smells that made me finally register that I was back in Africa; the dust, kerosene and charcoal. These odors came wafting from the black braziers where sizzling pieces of chicken, skewered with wooden sticks were being barbecued, they came from the minivan taxis, known as matutus, that belched foul exhaust fumes into the hot evening and kicked up the red dirt. These aren’t necessarily pleasant smells, but their Proustian effect made me so happy to be there.

Then the sound of ululating women and joyous music drew our little group of European cyclists to a high-walled compound down a side alley. We slowed down to listen and, noticing our curiosity, the security guard at the compound`s gateway gave us a broad grin and beckoned us to have a look.

We popped our heads around the gate and saw that a wedding was in full flow – a plump bride in white and her slim grey-suited groom were dancing the way down a carpet of white and orange silky fabric towards the wedding photographer. Their shuffling, swinging dance was being egged on by the ululating women and dancing men and by children who were throwing confetti and rice.

Proud matriarchs stood by and seeing us, beckoned us in, then the bride saw us, threw her head back and laughed before gesturing that we should join them. Several guests were beamed at us and children surrounded us.

So there we were, a few hours after landing in Africa, shaking hands with the bride’s parents and watching the cake being cut. Can you imagine a bunch of Africans, dressed in sweaty Lycra, cycling by a wedding in Austria or Britain and being invited in and treated like guest of honour? No, neither can I. It was great to be back.

pushing a kid in Uganda!

chris cummins

I`d arrived at Entebbe airport early in the morning with my friend Alex, from Link, an NGO that works with the Ugandan educational authorities to improve school conditions in the country. The rest of the group was mostly made up of primary school teachers, several of whom had spend volunteer summers in Ugandan working in rural schools as part of Link`s Global Teacher`s programme.

Uganda was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to introduce free universal primary education – a great achievement. But the schools had struggled to cope with the influx of children and the returning teachers shared memories of class sizes of a hundred children, of the lack of electricity and high dropout rates. On route, some of our crew would be visiting schools in which they had worked, meeting old friends and seeing if the schools had changed.

On the grid-locked road through Kampala on the way to Jinja, Alex told me about Link`s work: “It`s great that more and more children are getting to school but the real challenge now is to make sure that when they get there they are actually learning stuff that can change their life prospects and that they are healthy and safe.”

african school kids

chris cummins

While other charities build schools, Link takes the government schools that are already there. “They`re the schools that reach the overwhelming majority of the population. We try to make them better places to be in.”

Oversized classes will be a difficult problem to solve in the short run. There are simply far too many children and far too few teachers in Uganda. In 2010, the most recent date where figures are available, 48.4% of Uganda`s population was made up of children below the age of 15. But these challenges could be dealt with in better planning was incorporated into school life. To encourage this, Link works in tandem with local authorities, the schools themselves and the local community.

The latter aspect is vital – helping parents feel involved in the process means they are less likely to withdraw their kids from school before the end of the complete their primary education. In the schools where Link is active, for example, the dropout rates for girls, traditionally very high, is sinking.

On the way through the country we are going to visit some of these schools to get some eye-witness understanding of the problems and see if the program me is having any impact.

A Pulsating, Football Obsessed Capital

The capital Kampala, which has been built over a dozen hills, had looked very green from the outskirts.

On the slopes, red-roofed houses were nestled among banana trees and even alongside the diesel-choked road a thick, kilometre-long line of potted plants were being hawked. Carpenters were building and displaying ornate wooden beds.

But as we approached the centre of capital, the scene became grimmer and dirtier. It had been raining and the water had cut zigzagging rivulets in the alleyways and formed dirty puddles in front of the corrugated-iron roofed shacks. There were piles of hens crammed tightly into cages and carcasses of meat were dangling outside shop-fronts, unprotected from the daytime heat.

A boy in a beanie hat was cutting sugar-cane with a machete and there was shaded table after shaded table loaded with savoury green bananas, the Ugandan staple.

As we turned towards Jinja, we passed a depressing graveyard of wrecked matatus. They are cheap but they are accident-prone death-traps but not as dangerous as the boda-boda, the even cheaper motorbike taxis whose riders perched astride the seats by the roadside hoping for business.


chris cummins

There were long queues outside some shops with people cramming to get inside. I wondered what they were selling until I realised they were betting shops showing Premier League football. It was Saturday and the EPL is an obsession in Africa. A massive peach coloured mosque sat on a hill, its dome and minarets dwarfing the low rise shacks that surrounded it. This was the controversial Gadaffi Mosque, built by the deposed Libyan dictator who always fancied himself as a pan-Africanist.

Ready To Go

So here I am in Jinga looking out over Lake Victoria as dusk falls with a rising sense of nervous anticipation about the ride ahead. I`d loved Africa when I spent a few months here as a 22-year old, but I`d also got lost, mugged at knife point and became quite ill.

I hadn’t cared much at the time but as you get older you get more spooked by things.

As I write this, I`m drinking a Nile beer, which is strong and delicious, at the bar of the hotel and obsessively smearing on insect repellent at regular intervals. I just asked the barman why he was wearing a thick jacket despite the warm evening and he explained that he was suffering from a bout of malaria.

Tomorrow we set off past rural plantations of mango, pineapple and cassava to the small town on Kayunga and then onwards in the Luwero triangle where Uganda`s President Yoweri Museveni started the uprising that eventually brought him to power.

I can’t wait.

Let the adventure begin.