Alternate reality

The first hurdle in preparing our journey to Rwanda is to go completely plastic-free. Plastic (bags, especially) is banned from Rwanda, a rule which is strictly enforced at the borders. Customs searches which yield plastic bags typically lead to public humiliation and a lecture in front of one’s fellow travellers – a fate we would rather avoid. It is hard to imagine how many plastic bags of all sizes are needed of a year of travelling. And how few the substitutes are.

from Fort Portal to the Rwandan border

The Uganda-Rwanda border is a small group of low-rise huts and kiosks in the middle of a remote, dusty road. Exiting Uganda is fairly easy if somewhat disorganized. Our driver drops us off near a vaguely official looking building and then vanishes. We get our passports stamped and then walk across the border into the no man’s land, past a bored looking border guard, dodging trucks and motorcycles along the way.

traffic jam at the border
it is faster to cross the border on foot

The Rwandese side is apparently more organized, with smart looking immigration officials in a small open air building with more computers than NASA Mission Control. After being sent from one hut to another and back again, we get through Immigration and finally set foot on Rwandan soil, about one hour after reaching the border.

finally on Rwandan soil

Rwanda feels a bit like an alternate reality of Uganda. Similar in appearance, but with subtle differences.

The landscape is green and hilly with terrace fields on either side of the border. And the people look similar. But all the rest is different. Where the Ugandan roads are pot-holed earth tracks, Rwanda has perfectly asphalted and landscaped roads. In Uganda, vehicles terrorize anything smaller than them off the road (cyclists, pedestrians, motorbikes), but in Rwanda they politely give way to them. 

Ugandan roadworks just appear in the middle of a road, blocking traffic in a random way, while in Rwanda, they are set up with traffic controllers communicating with walkie talkies. And the garbage-littered roads of Uganda give way to spotlessly clean roads in Rwanda.

Nine hours after leaving Fort Portal, we finally reach Kigali, a city nestled among the hills which seems like a haven of peace, order and organization.


Uganda: Toro “pet names”

An interesting Toro custom is the granting of “pet names” to everyone (Empaako, in the Toro language). Given at birth, these names can change to reflect each person’s accomplishments or personality.

There are 12 Toro pet names and these are used among the Toro as soon as they have moved beyond the initial formality, after meeting each other. They can be used as terms of endearment or honorifics. So you would not greet Andre by his name but by his pet name, say, “Akiki”.

Interestingly, though everyone here has a pet name, no one I spoke to knows the meaning of all 12 names. After a week of extensive enquiries, I was only able to get the meaning of 11 of the names. The Toro are apparently the only tribe in Africa to use pet names with the Bunyoro.

The 12 Toro pet names:

Akiki: adventurer, explorer

Amoti: queen

Atoki: groom

Araali: someone respected, popular

Achaali: …took me a while to find out that one: someone who relates to others easily

Aboli: pussycat

Atenyi: a mythical river snake, with magical powers

Abaala: large, big sized

Apwoli: puppy dog

Adyeri: thunder

Abwoki: piglet

Okaali: reserved for the King

Uganda: Toro Kingdom

Centered around Fort Portal, the Toro Kingdom is the youngest of Uganda’s remaining nine kingdoms, having been born in 1825 when its southern principality split away from the Bunyoro Kingdom.

As we visit the rather forlorn Royal Tombs (the last entry in the visitors book dates back to September), we encounter the Guardian of the Royal Tombs, the third generation of his family to hold that office. Located at the end of a bumpy, rural road in the middle of overgrown fields, the three first Toro kings are each buried in their own small cottage.

The Guardian has an aura of quiet dignity about him and seems at once surprised and grateful to have visitors. As often in Africa, we find that knowledge of traditions and history is fast disapperaring and only kept by a few elders.

Guardian of the Royal Tombs

We pick up some interesting tidbits during the visit.

When a king dies, he is buried in the Royal Tombs without the presence of his close family who remain unaware of the location of the Royal Tombs. That knowledge is kept secret from the reigning king, to ward him from bad luck.

When the king has a son and heir, he is not allowed to meet him so that two kings (the present and future kings) are never in each other’s presence, which could negate their powers. The current and fourth king of Toro was sent to England when he was born and his father never met him.

Every new king needs to be given a ceremonial lion or leopard skin. That skin must be obtained from an animal who has killed a man. To achieve this, two members of the king’s clan are selected to go and hunt a lion or leopard. One of them sacrifices himself by taunting and distracting the animal while the other one kills the lion or leopard. This custom is still practiced today.

Finally, we meet the Sacred Ankole Cow, appointed when the new King is crowned and symbolically the recipient of the Kingdom’s wealth and fortune. The cow is worshipped and protected by the Toro during the king’s reign. We find the current incumbent grazing nonchalantly near a cluster of tombs belonging to minor aristocracy.

Toro tomb

Uganda: Fort Portal

Founded in 1893 by the British to protect the newly founded Toro Kingdom, Fort Portal is a pleasant highland town where we spend a relaxing week not doing very much. With the Mountains of the Moon as a backdrop, old colonial bungalows dotted around the town and quite a few good restaurants, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to be anywhere else!

Fort Portal is surrounded by 32 crater lakes, all within a one hour radius from town – each one the tranquil outcome of a formerly active volcano.

Fort Portal mosque
Fort Portal’s main roundabout
Crater lake – depicting on the 20,000 shilling note

Uganda: Mountains of the Moon

The Rwenzori mountains. The geographer Ptolemy called them the Mountains of the Moon, in the 2nd century AD, and thought they were the source of the Nile. The massive range between Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo is perpetually shrouded in mist and looms like a dark and mysterious presence over the Rift Valley. 

Its two peaks above 5,000m are covered in snow and ice and on the rare occasions when they are revealed through a gap in the clouds, they emanate a harsh, silvery light.

hiking in the Rwenzoris – the Blue Mountains of the Congo are in the background
unexpected encounter in the Rwenzoris
no way forward but on foot

Uganda: eccentric haven

The Fort Portal area of southwest Uganda is dotted with crater lakes, ancient witnesses to the enormous volcanic activity which shook the region 30,000 years ago. Cold, shrouded in mist during the rainy season, it has a slightly mysterious quality to it.

The Kyaninga crater lake lies on top of two mildly active volcanoes which keep its waters permanently warm despite its depth of 220m. Precariously perched on the rim of the crater sits an eccentric anomaly. A small lodge which looks like a cross between a Japanese ryokan and a Swiss mountain chalet. All wood and stone and refinement. The only place in Uganda, perhaps Africa, with a “boules” field and a grass tennis court.

Kyaninga lake
swimming in the lake
picking strawberries for dinner
Kyaninga Lodge’s lounge
updating journal at Kyaninga
lawn tennis on the equator

Uganda: African road

Gracious ladies carrying unbelievable loads on their heads, seem to glide along the road – firewood, water containers, baskets full of fruits.

Matoke ready for dispatch

Matoke-laden bicycles trying hard to keep their balance. The green banana, mixed with flour, is the staple food of Uganda – rice being mostly for the rich.

And the guys, often idle along the road, unless they are washing their precious motorcycles in a river or a puddle after the rain. But everywhere, when they spot the wazungu racing past in their car, big smiles and waves.

crossing the equator
on the roadside

Uganda: Queen Elizabeth Park

Visited by the Queen in 1954, the National Park has born her name ever since (with a short interruption during the Idi Amin years).

The road to the park is more like a linear town, with continuous activity on both sides over a 100km distance. Every few kilometers, we see the ubiquitous mobile phone company shops, which are helping to propel Africa into the future through their money transfer services. In numbers, only primary schools compete with the mobile operators’ distribution, reflecting the 50% of the population aged 15 and below. School children in smart uniforms walking for miles along the road to their school are a feature of the African Road, everywhere we go.

the Rwenzoris (Mountains of the Moon) form a backdrop to an Airtel shop
the Kazinga channel, which separates lakes Edward and Albert
the Queen had a drink at this bar (well, possibly…), at Mweya Safari Lodge

Uganda: Murchison Falls

Uganda’s biggest national park, Murchison Falls also has the distinction of probably being the only national park in the world where oil companies are actively drilling for oil. So the sightings of animals are augmented by sightings of Total and Halliburton trucks criss-crossing the park (no sign of Exxon yet, Hock Lye !).

The Falls themselves are spectacular. The Nile, on its 6,500km journey to the Mediterranean, gets squeezed into a 6m bottleneck from where it explodes out at 300 cubic meters  per second.

Murchison Falls
crossing the mighty Nile

Paara Lodge, where we stay, has another surprise for us. As I walk to the bar, I get that strange sense of deja vu, and realise that this is the same bar that features in an old black and white photograph of my father, who stayed here in 1962

51 years later…
Big Oil at work

Uganda: Karamojong

The Karamojong are a group of Nilotic herders, similar in some ways to the Maasai. Their fearsome reputation among other Ugandans comes from their warlike culture and prowess with weapons. Like in other warrior cultures, the boys are raised in a spartan manner and are said to “enjoy living a tough life”. 

They still occasionally raid other villages, to steal cattle or even their women. Until the disarmament program was completed a few years ago, the Karamojong were armed to the teeth with an overflow of weapons from the war in the Sudan, and those raids were usually quite bloody.

Lorokul village
reception committee

The Karamojong have managed to maintain their traditional way of life, and while they may partake in some aspects of modern life (such as schooling), they seem to take genuine pride in their culture and to prefer life in their villages. Their witch-doctors ride hyenas to communicate with spirits in order to cure illnesses, repel bad luck and call the rain.Every evening, the men will gather around a campfire with the Elders to drink sorghum-beer and discuss village matters.

A Council of Elders decides all matters in the village and they keep a clear division of labour between men and women. Men look after the cattle and build the infrastructure of the bandas. Women pound grains, cook, look after the children and thatch the bandas. Most men take several wives, often between two and six.

greeting king Lothiang

We visit the village of one of our camp’s staff, Augustine – a settlement of about 1,700 people called Lorukul.  On that day, their king, Lothiang Ignatio, has just returned from the hospital where he was being treated and we have the opportunity to pay our respects to him.

traditional dance
inside a banda