Posting from Uganda


Part 1: Life and death

I am writing this post from the shores of beautiful Lake Bunyonyi in the south of Uganda. I have just watched the dark clouds push through the emerald green valley where the lake is nestled, bringing a whipping wind and a burst of rain to clear the air. My cold Nile Special rests on a pile of stones that are serving as a table beside me, and I have a good book on my lap. Now that the rain has past, the vast array of birdlife has come out of hiding, busying itself with the daily work of diving for fish, fighting for space and bouncing across rushes. They really do talk a lot.

I have never seen a moth the size of the one that lies broken in two pieces beside my foot. It arrived clumsily onto the stone terrace where I am sitting, colliding with my upper arm before rebounding downward and hitting the floor, where it lurched and flopped onto its back. I watched it flail for a moment with its legs waving wildly in the air before reaching down and flipping it right-side up with my bookmark. It sat quietly then, unmoving.

Whole, it must be almost have three inches long, with a thick, meaty abdomen and broad sand-coloured wings. It had thick stripes across its back, faded red and black bands like football colours. It wasn’t beautiful like the butterflies I had seen flitting through the purple bougainvillea by the water but it was impressive nonetheless. I imagined it on a big, silver fishing hook. I imagined the fish that got away, waddling through the water with its belly full. I imagined both fish and moth being served up whole on a plate.

I have been thinking lately (for want of a better phrase) about the circle of life.

I took a sip of my beer and watched a black and white bird with the most wonderful mohawk propel itself toward the water like a rocket, aiming for the small fish just below the surface, I found myself barracking for the bird. He was so fast and sure, I hoped he would catch himself some supper. Yet, in sport, I like to back the underdog; why not here? Was it because I could watch and appreciate the bird from my vantage point on the shore? Or was it because the bird was just so much prettier than whatever dull lake fish it was catching?

I took another sip of my beer.

After some time, I noticed that the giant moth by my foot had managed to get itself on its back again. A small line of ants was making its way towards the fallen creature. My first thought was to grab my bookmark and flick it onto the grass where it could be gobbled up quickly by a hungry bird. But I stopped myself. Sure, it might mean a faster death for the moth, but the moth had fallen where it had; shouldn’t the ants get to feed?

This time, I wasn’t barracking for the hunter, and I wasn’t barracking for the prey; I wasn’t barracking at all. Who was I to decide if the moth lived to see another day? Given how tired this moth was looking, who was I to decide whether the ants got their fair go at a feast, or whether the moth found its way off the stone terrace into the waiting beak of one of the lake’s feathered inhabitants? Who was I to decide who got to eat?

I sat and watched the ants climb across the failing body of the moth. I watched as it intermittently waved its thin legs at the clambering ants, trying to brush them away. I watched it breath deeply, amazed, as its belly filled with air, and watched its pointed tail bend upwards and fall back down again. I watched the ants climb across its eyes and under its wings and gather on its torso. I saw small bites appearing down the outer edge of its wings.

I was watching it die, a slow, painful death.

I remembered a passage from Jonathan Safran Froer’s book about vegetarianism, Eating Animals, which addressed each human being’s choice to eat meat. It acknowledged that we were biologically suited to eating both animal and vegetable matter, but also pointed out that we have consciousness; we have the capacity to think about the suffering of other beings and act to prevent it. Why eat meat and inevitably cause pain to an animal when (certainly in the western world) we have the knowledge and capacity to feed ourselves a complete, healthy diet by other means? Why allow other beings to suffer when we can choose to act to prevent it?

I chose a rock from the pile that my Nile Special was sitting on, one that had a good, straight, sharp edge. I knelt down beside the moth, dozens of ants now industriously moving across its body, and brought the rock down where I thought its neck might be. I separated its head from its torso and moved the two pieces an inch or so apart, to be sure there was no remaining connection. I watched its tail wave slowly a couple of times, the nerve endings finishing their work, and, after a moment’s chaos, I watched the ants return to their positions on what was now a carcass. They would still get their meal.

Part 2: Driving

We inched along behind an enormous yellow grader for a few minutes, its bulk taking up the entire road and slowing us to a crawl until we could find a safe place to pass. A row of blades at its rear tore up the dark red earth, churning the damp packed dirt into broken pieces. It looked like chocolate brownies, rich against the green walls of the Budongo Forest either side of us.

At least the grader would keep the baboons off the road for a while. ‘We have to pay a fine if you hit them, of course,’ our driver Abdal said. ‘It’s a national park. It’s where they are safe.’ He swung out around the grader and sped up to escape the road works. He was conscious of the time. Tourists don’t like to be late: they have gorilla tracking to attend, planes to catch, things that don’t wait. Scott wound down his window to enjoy the cool air blowing in, and I spotted a family of black and white colobus monkeys hurrying up a tree; we had no where to be.

(We hired Abdal to drive us to Murchison Falls in the west of Uganda because there was no public transport for the last eighty or so kilometres. We had been told we might be able to hitch the last leg, but faced with the wet season and the prospect of being stranded with enough luggage to see us through four months’ travel, we decided to stump up and get ourselves a driver.)

I had just finished reading Maggie Gee’s novel My Driver. It’s a lovely, light tale of hapless but endearing Brits travelling in Uganda. It’s the kind of book you enjoy despite yourself. Trevor, the plumber, finds himself in the back of his Ugandan friend Mary’s red Toyota, with half the village, on the return journey to Kampala. ‘Mary’s aunt is in the back, and the neighbor, for both of them have errands on the way to Mbarara, the other side of the equator, and the neighbour’s brother is going also, a skinny, smiling man called James.’ Trevor is to pay James for driving him to Mweya. Trevor thinks:

Out here … a car is a business. It’s a business opportunity, a car journey. Whereas at home, a car is just another car. Every bugger’s got one. We don’t think about it. Travel’s easy for us. We just set off and go wherever we want to.

It made me think of a lift we caught a couple of weeks ago. Scott and I went hiking around Lake Bunyonyi in the south of Uganda and found ourselves, mid-afternoon, in a small village around six kilometres from the town we were staying in. The rain was moving in quickly, the dark clouds ominously throwing the occasional fat drop down on our heads like a warning. There were no taxis, unsurprisingly, and the matatu we had just seen flying through the village was going in the opposite direction. It was expected to do the return trip in an hour, maybe two. A beaten up white Toyota station-wagon with a smashed-in windscreen and four smiling, grubby men, and as many sacks of charcoal they could pack in the rear, gave us a lift into town for 3000 shillings each.

3000 shillings is roughly $1.50 Australian. Pretty steep, we thought, for a six-k downhill trip that the driver was doing anyway. But we were getting used to mzungu prices: an inflated price for foreigners who are perceived to be able to afford it. We paid it, of course. When it rains here, it rains hard. And they’re right, we can afford it.

But 3000 shillings is also roughly the price of a litre of petrol here. Expensive enough at home, but even more so in a country where the World Bank’s 2008 estimated average salary was around US$340. The price fluctuates depending on what’s happening in Kenya, which is where the fuel comes from. The price moves up and down according to whatever trouble there is on Kenyan roads, or with Kenyan roads, or with Kenyan pipelines. Abdal was unimpressed by Kenya. He used to drive from the capital of Uganda across to Mombassa on the Kenyan coast to collect vehicles that had been shipped into the port. His job was to drive the cars back to Kampala to be sold. The first leg to Nairobi was generally okay, just long. On the second leg, he would make sure he had enough food and fuel to get him all the way to Kampala, lock his doors and drive non stop until he reached his destination. The roads in the west are full of bandits, he told us. They put nails on the roads to stop the cars and then hijack the vehicles at gunpoint. ‘Some of my colleagues died,’ he said, almost in passing. ‘So I gave it up.’

Abdal has a degree in automotive engineering. He graduated last October but can’t find work in his field. Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a huge call for automotive engineers in Uganda. He reminded me of every Indian taxi driver in Melbourne, every young woman working at Myer: intelligent, well-educated people, quietly waiting for their chance to do the work they really want to do. So, he drives tourists around in the meantime.

The money is good, yes. But Uganda has the highest incidence of road traffic accidents in East Africa. 2 734 people died on the roads last year; it would be comparable per capita to Australia except that (as demonstrated by the various and creative ways of catching lifts that Ugandans have) the incidence of automotive travel in Uganda is significantly less than at home. In 2009, 18 563 people were involved in accidents; 15% of these were fatal. Of that number, 13 392 (72 %) were seriously injured and 2 437 (13 %) sustained minor injuries. 70% of all road accidents involve motorbikes; unsurprising, given how they are bullied around on the roads by larger, faster vehicles, forced onto the verges and blinded by clouds of dust. As I write this, Scott is reading a newspaper article about an intercity bus that crashed overnight, killing four and hospitalising thirty-six. Passengers have reported the driver was drunk. People in other cars reported seeing him overtaking wildly and taking corners far too sharply, almost sending them off the roads. Uganda’s most popular afro-beat band, The Afrigo Band, have a song called Speed, an ode to bus drivers to slow down and take care of their friends and family as they travel.

Trevor is right: a car journey is a business opportunity. Having access to the roads means having access to an economy. But it’s not a licence to print money. It’s expensive and comes with risks. And for most drivers, who don’t own their vehicles, the rewards don’t match that risk. I thought of Abdal, breaking hard at a set of speed humps. ‘Our government, they put money into the roads, they are quite good,’ he said through gritted teeth, racing down through the gears as we crashed over the concrete rises. ‘But they forget to put in traffic signs.’ He crossed two more sets of speed humps, swerved to miss a goat and slowed behind a matatu that pulled out blindly in front of him. Abdal is a good driver, but I hope he finds a job in automotive engineering soon.

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