It Takes a Village

What a night last night. We traded bedbugs for late-night revellers who partied just outside our window until 1 am. So we didn’t get much sleep for the second night in a row. They knocked on our door before we were up this morning to take our order for breakfast. We weren’t ready to eat yet, but when I did finally agree that some scrambled eggs and coffee would be really nice, she said it would be ready in thirty minutes. An hour and a half later, we gobbled down our cold eggs and scalded our throats to get down the overly hot coffee before Luke’s expected arrival just after 10. He arrived with our friend from Kasanda named Jakob who was the man who drove Vincent to pick us up from the airport way back in June. We hadn’t seen him for over a month so it was a happy reunion. He is hilarious, animated, loud, big and humble. He’s the kind of guy you like to have with you wherever you go because he exudes joy and laughs easily. He is the two-time Ugandan national heavy weight boxing champion and used to be a lorry driver. He can fix anything and I just feel safer when he’s around. It was strange to be in a car for the first time in two months. It seemed WAY too fast and as we drove along the rutted dirt roads, I found myself “picking my line,” watching for glass, and holding my breath when a truck went by to avoid breathing in the dust. It seems that being on these roads on a bike for nearly two months has formed some habits.

Luke (the reporter if you’ve missed previous blogs) had a few places he wanted us to visit and a few people he wanted us to meet. We first visited a school where his uncle is the director and visited a couple of classes. The class-sizes were HUGE with only one teacher and as an educator in Canada where the union fights for reasonable class-size, I was saddened and felt for the teacher. The learning strategy was very much rote memory as evidenced by their songs and reaction to seeing us when they say a greeting in unison that I’m not sure they even understand. The students were very well-behaved and Luke said it’s because it’s a private school where students pay even more than our Get Schooled kids. The teachers are better educated and the classrooms are more organized.

After visiting the school we went to the Ttanda Archeological site. The main tribe in the area is the Buganda, the largest tribe in Uganda. They believe that suffering and death began at the exact spot we visited. It boasts of having the deepest holes in the world that they explain with legends and myths about two gods who were fighting each other and they dug the holes as a strategy to evade and sneak up on each other. I have no idea how those holes actually formed geologically and neither do they, but they were deep!! So the site is now a sacred shrine to various gods and people pay to go there to worship and pray to various gods including those of art, sports, music, thunder, electricity, etc. We even had to take off our shoes to enter, but when Luke argued that he didn’t want to get his socks dirty, they gave him a pair of “ancient” shoes to wear that looked strangely like every other pair of sandals we have seen people wearing. Because the two gods who dug the holes were warriors, people leave spears there as a sacrifice. They will also pray for healing and leave their crutches behind as proof they were healed. We had some good discussion with Luke and Jacob about how the Ugandans take their traditional beliefs and try to respect them while still holding true to their Christian or Catholic beliefs. They said it was very difficult for some and something that is a constant struggle.

After that, he took us to see a very large tree that is traditionally known for “swallowing up” two people that just got married. People used to go there to worship as well, but we weren’t clear who was being worshipped or why. But the Catholic church bought the land it’s on and wouldn’t allow the worshippers to come anymore. To make their point, they put up a picture of Mary encased in a wooden box. Once again, there is that never-ending contrast within Uganda. You have the old and new, the religious and the traditional, the rich and the poor, the pain and the beauty. There was also a box of condoms nailed to the backside of this ancient looking tree. But Luke said he wouldn’t trust them because they might have been in the sunshine or rain. He rolled his eyes at the idea of anyone actually using them, but not at the idea of a box of condoms being nailed to a sacred tree on a village corner.

We had an older man wearing a puffy coat climb into the van with us to direct us to the next site – a place to which a stone had mysteriously rolled from the tree we were currently at, about two kilometres away over night. It was and is still believed that whoever tries to take firewood from the forest where it now rests would fail. Their fires wouldn’t light, the food would burn, etc. So now the forest around the rock is left alone. There we found a group of people still worshipping who shave their heads and again, charge money to go in to see the rock. A woman named Gladys scrawled her phone number on a piece of cardboard, shoved it into my hand and asked me to take her baby to Canada. She actually handed me her baby. I declined, of course, with nervous laughter and said the baby needed its mom. Kinda awkward so we left without walking into their spiritual space, refusing to pay their admission.

In the afternoon we enjoyed a lovely lunch made by Luke’s wife, Jessica, of matoke, beans, rice, greens, spaghetti, beef and juice. He told us the story of Robert, the quiet teen who walked past the table a few times without stopping to eat. Luke had found him distressed by the side of the road a few months ago. A job that he was promised had fallen through and he didn’t have anywhere to go. His parents’ situation wouldn’t have been any better than staying in the street. So Luke allows Robert to stay with him and his family and found him a job in another district. Robert stays off and on with Luke when he has any time off. Luke seems very civic-minded, cares a lot about his community and is a living example of the African proverb (not Hillary Clinton) that “it takes a village to raise a child”. At one point, we saw some kids walking home from school gnawing on sugar cane. Luke told Jakob to stop the van and he hopped out, talking to the kids about how it’s very bad manners to be walking and eating in your school uniform. They all knelt down to show respect and they apologized. Everywhere we went, if he saw kids that should have been in school, he asked them why they were not. They always had an excuse, but Luke says their answers sounded less like truth and more like something they had been taught to say if anyone asked them about school.

We finished our day together taking various back roads to find a good spot to see Lake Wamala, a fresh water lake which was part of Lake Victoria but has receded into its own banks over the last 4000 years (according to Wikipedia). There were fishermen and lots of wooden boats scattered on the shoreline. Unfortunately, it’s too muddy to really be a tourist attraction where we were, but you could see they were trying to develop certain areas to make the lake more accessible to tourists and locals to enjoy the birds and the cool breezes. The map below shows our vantage point.

It’s hard to believe that our last day of riding is tomorrow. I have mixed emotions as you would expect: Pride. Sadness. Relief. Gratitude. Expectation. And a nagging sense of Emptiness. I’ll have about 50 kilometres during which to sort all that out and I plan to greet every person I can, take in every scene, feel every bump, relish every sip of water and I even found a Snickers in town today to devour at my discretion during the ride. It’s going to be a good day.