Nairobi to Kampala via Mbale
13.01.2007 - 13.01.2007
12th January 2007
I arrived early in the morning in Mbale, a quiet town near the North Eastern border between Uganda and Kenya. It had magnificent views of the majestic Mount Elgon, the 3rd highest free standing mountain in Africa. I had initially planned a summit attempt, but the costs had skyrocketed, I was short on time and the weather was awful.
Both my back and neck were in pain from being jerked about on the bus journey while I was in a semi-permanent trance. Anyone who has endured long bus journeys, and this was my 7th major uncomfortable long bus ride, knows that if you don’t get comfortable before your sleep, you just end up slobbering all over yourself and your loose unsupported neck bounces back and forth, every so often waking you up. Even though I had my luxury duck down pillow, I wasn’t used to the public transport thing again. So I opted to hop on the back of a small motor bike taxi, partly to escape the madding crowd that had gathered around our bus, but also to scale the steep hill ahead that would take me to ‘Tom’s Place’ for a hearty breakfast. The boda-boda (motorbike taxi) returned to collect me (with all my luggage) to take me to Makadui, home of the Abayudaya.
The Abayudaya are an isolated community of Ugandan ‘Jews’, who are not officially accepted as Jews, nor will they undergo a conversion recognised by a court of rabbis. From what I saw, they are more Jewish than most Jews I know, especially me!
They are devout in keeping to the customs and rituals. They read from the Torah, have their own synagogue replete with authentic scrolls, are strictly Kosher and follow most of the high holidays including every Shabbat, all in accordance with the Talmudic laws.
The name Abayudaya is simply the Luganda (one of the Ugandan languages) word for Jews, coming from the People of Judea or Ba-Judea. They were founded in 1920 when Semei Kakungulu retired from his ‘presidency’ of Busoga and broke away from the existing ‘Malakites’. The key issue was male circumcision, which Kakungulu and his followers believed was in line with the Old Testament, but most other Malakites deemed sacrilege.
The community consisted of thousands of converts and thrived until 1971, when Idi Amin banned Judaism, closed 32 synagogues and ordered the Abayudaya to convert to Christianity or Islam. During the Amin years, over 3,000 abandoned their faith for fear of being tortured by the military. Some of the more stubborn were beaten to death by Amin’s thugs for collecting synagogue remnants blown away by a storm. None survived (the remnants and the people).
Today there are less than 500 individuals left, most of them living on Nabugoye Hill, near Makadui.
The taxi dropped me off at the bottom of the hill. I wasn’t sure where to go, and didn’t see anything resembling Judaism.
I walked up the hill, with all my gear, and eventually collapsed under a tree. After a short rest, I explored the area and found the Aaron, a young leader of the community. He invited me into his home, insisting I bring my luggage in and put it in the ‘spare bedroom’. His children were clearly living in it, but I bit my tongue nevertheless. We discussed the Abayudaya and I realized that my ‘bright idea’ of writing a story about the community wasn’t such a great idea. It actually was, but dozens of others had already thought of it and written magazine articles, filmed documentaries and donated Torahs, books and religious clothing. This was the most northerly point of my trip, and I had five days to get to my ferry in Kigoma, Tanzania.
Aaron invited me to spend the Sabbath in their home, but I realized that I wouldn’t be able to leave until Sunday. I would be offending them if I did, as they considered my travelling as ‘work’. We discussed it and I produced my Michelin 953 Southern Africa map. I spread it all over their small dining table and we worked out a plan of action to get me to Lake Tanganyika in one piece. Aaron confirmed that Rwanda was safe, but wasn’t so sure about Burundi.
I wanted to climb Mt Elgon and witness the spectacular Sipi Falls, but it wasn’t realistically going to happen. I had to admit that I had bitten off more than I could chew and together we decided I had to sacrifice the mountains and lakes of Uganda. I left his wife with a coconut that I’d lugged all the way from Kenya two weeks before. I donated a yarmulke (skullcap) to the community. I had brought it all the way from Cape Town after finding it on the street while walking home from work one night.
I visited the local store which was run by the community, and purchased some kosher popcorn, freshly popped in their movie-cinema-style popcorn machine. It seemed it was their bestseller as there was a queue of local children eagerly awaiting the next batch.
I bid Aaron’s family farewell and jumped on another boda-boda which had serendipitously arrived after I was told I would have to walk.
12th January 2007
I was dropped at the taxi stand, where I was pounced upon by half a dozen touts. I got the last seat on a bus which was about to leave, fighting my way through the chaos of chickens, food, and bodies occupying most of the dilapidated rusted excuse for a bus. The two hour journey became a five hour ordeal.
We didn’t drop or pickup any passengers on the way and did indeed arrive on the outskirts of Kampala on time.
Being Friday afternoon it took almost three hours to get inside the sprawling city. While waiting in the bus I passed the time reading my Lonely Planet and catching up on my blog.
The LP had this to say about Kampala:
The worst thing about Kampala is the traffic. Near gridlock descends on the city during rush hour and it can take more than an hour to break out. The valleys fill up with the belching fumes of the minibuses and some days you can chew the air….
This was one of those days and I was chewing the filthy air and munching on stale, cheap and nasty sweets from Kenya.
I was supposed to meet Dennis Ssetlala and his friend Helen. We had communicated via the Thorntree forum on the internet, with regard to volunteering. Once I had finally arrived at the bus terminal, it took another hour for them to find me, as neither of us knew which one of the three bus terminals I was at. I befriended a local taxi driver, who directed them over the phone.
We met up and they accompanied me in a crammed taxi to the Red Chilli Hideaway. The taxi stand was the biggest transport hub I had ever seen, and I was puzzled as to how any of the vehicles could escape the chaotic gridlock they had created. Luckily the taxi we chose wasn’t part of that mess, and after rearranging the occupants of a sardine packed taxi, so that the three of us (and my luggage) could occupy the front bench seat, we were on our way. I had to close my eyes every few minutes, as it seemed we were going to disappear in the abyss of potholes that were the road. Motorbikes and cyclists were coming directly at us and even though everyone was driving like I do in a computer game, there was miraculously no contact. At least I didn’t see any.
Dennis and Helen ran a Christian charity and needed me to teach young adults how to use computers. They turned out to be students themselves, and their organization was far from what I envisaged. They couldn’t even offer me food or accommodation, but I listened to them and explained that I couldn’t assist unless they could pay for my living expenses. We had some Tangawizis and burgers while discussing my trip and computer education, as well as existing donors and sponsors of their project. I promised to give it some thought and agreed to meet them at their church the next day.
I spoke to a crazy South African (Afrikaans) girl who was a proud Mzungu, admitting to travelling around aimlessly like a lunatic. We shared travel stories and tips on where to go. Nobody knew the current state of Burundi, and I needed to make a decision as to which route I would take. I had planned for this eventuality, and if Burundi was a ‘no go’, then I would have to skip out Rwanda and head south for Tanzania. I decided to sleep on it.
I got excited at a possible job on offer at Red Chili’s Murchison Falls operation.
Before Idi Amin’s regime, the National Park at Murchison used to carry 15,000 Elephant, 26,000 Buffalo and herds of Hartebeest, Kob and Hippopotamus. Although it seems sacrilege to say it, the mass slaughter of wildlife that took place may have been a good thing. The animals chomped their way through almost 400 tons of vegetation, every day!
The falls are supposed to be awesome when viewed up close, and were once described as the most spectacular thing to happen to the Nile along its 6,700km length. The gorge through which the Nile passes is just six meters wide, making Murchison possibly the most powerful natural surge of water to be found anywhere on the planet!
The owner of Red Chilli, a South African woman, would come in the next morning. I planned to put forward my case in the hope of landing the job. They were looking for a couple though, and I was definitely single.
I had a big day coming up that could possibly change my future (I suppose every day does change one’s future, but this was one of those special days). There was the volunteering, the job at Murchison Falls, Rwanda and Burundi or not…..