The Ugandan Border Post (Bibia) is about 10km away across no-mans’ land. Bars and houses of ill repute flourish here. Don’t worry – we didn’t stay there! It took approximately 20 minutes to clear customs and immigration at Bibia and that included standing in a long queue. I was shocked to see Billy back so soon and thought something was wrong!
Immediately, the differences between the 2 countries were apparent. Aggressive, suspicious faces were replaced by friendly, excited and most importantly, welcoming people. There are only about 150 horses in Uganda, all in the south. Only 2 people we met on our journey to Kampala had ever seen a horse before and that was in 1966. Billy tells me that was long before he was born! The schools along the road don’t have windows but large gaps between roof and wall. As we rode past, we would see one head pop up above the wall, then a second and third. Children would come pouring over the wall. Angry protestations from irate teachers meant nothing as 800 children come charging towards the horses which they must have viewed as strange magical creatures! Can you imagine seeing a horse for the first time? It’s enough to make anyone turn and flee, but to the horses’ credit, they took it all in their stride. Screaming children pulled their tails and rushed up to touch them quickly before running away again. Prefects chase and beat them with big sticks but to no avail! This became a regular occurrence as we passed these schools every 5-10km.
One of the reasons we were so quick through the border post at Bibia was because the district vet wasn’t there. We were trusted to ride to Gulu, the first large town in Uganda, where the district vet is based. It took us 4 days to get there to have our horses vetted. Gulu reminded us so much of an old colonial town (which I suppose it is!) District offices and buildings are very similar to any other African town where the Brits spent any time. Jacaranda, Frangipani, Candelabra and Flamboyant trees line the streets, and the purples, pinks, reds and yellows colour a beautiful town.
Dr Tony Aliro, the district vet, and all his colleagues were very welcoming. Our horses were considered to be fit and healthy and only needed to be dipped and de-wormed in accordance to Ugandan Veterinary Regulations. Unfortunately there was only cattle dip available and we found out the hard way, that it’s not good for horses. It had to be poured along their backs from withers to tail and it burned. We washed off what we could but the damage had already been done. We had to wait a week for them to recover sufficiently to carry any weight again. As with most challenges we have faced on this expedition, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We spent the week getting to know Dr Tony and his family (including his mother who is a keen Arsenal supporter!), the people of Gulu and some NGO workers from England. We tasted cane rat, smoked and cooked in peanut butter sauce, a local delicacy and enjoyed “pork ships” – roasted pork and chips. We walked the colourful market and spent time taking it all in. Although we always used to laugh when people from northern Africa told us they were part of the Middle East rather than Africa, it is completely different. For both of us, having lived in southern Africa our whole lives, arriving in Uganda felt a little bit like coming home.
One unfortunate encounter we had in Gulu, occurred when chatting with a young political science student at the time of change and upheaval in North Africa. When we told him the countries we had travelled through he said, “Tunisia is burning, Libya is burning, Egypt is burning, Sudan is burning. If Uganda starts to burn, we are coming for you!” I’m not sure what he was studying at university but he seemed to think that 2 people and 2 horses could turn the world upside down!
After leaving Gulu, we made the mistake of riding on a Sunday and so became the pied pipers of Uganda leading a number of kids 25km along the road. The noise level was tremendous! Cantering didn’t faze them – they merely ran after us! When we finally stopped for the evening, children of all ages surrounded us in excitement. A retired doctor, whose land we were staying on, asked them to go home. They asked if he had just bought these strange creatures and when he said no, they told him to mind his own business! 4 children were still missing 4 days later! It seems they had been sleeping in the school nearby waiting for us to leave so they could follow us again! Heaven knows what they were eating. Frantic parents put out radio messages. We were asked to stay put until these children had been found. This was beneficial to the local polling station next door as hundreds of people came to see the horses and were quietly taken off to vote whilst there!
The Ugandan presidential elections had just finished as we arrived in Uganda. Various local elections were taking place as we travelled through. It’s impressive to see how the system works and how seriously it is taken by everyone from the poor, uneducated and illiterate to the rich and powerful. Even the most insignificant people have a say. Local Councillors (LCs) 1 to 5 are chosen to lead villages, parishes, towns and districts. This is really democracy from a grass roots level. However, not all voting officials found us useful. We stopped in a village for a cup of tea during voting and were such a distraction that we were asked to leave!
The Ugandans are a very friendly people and full of laughter… They certainly kept us smiling with the following questions and sayings:
- Is that a camel or a donkey? No madam, it’s a horse. Ah, a kangaroo!
- Do they eat people?
- You must be very rich – those animals cost more than a car!
- Is it faster than a bus?
- Good morning for tomorrow! (Meaning, have a good day tomorrow!)
- I too would like a wife skilled in the art of fighting so she can give me one when I disturb her! (This in reply to Billy joking that Christy beats him at arm wrestling!)
- How is your body with the environment?
- Aren’t horses desert animals?
- What is the gestation period of this animal? (This from young kids!)
- Are horses edible? (When we explained that they are but we chose not to eat them because of the relationship we share with them, the Ugandans understood immediately. Their ploughing bulls are never eaten but buried in respect of all their hard work.)
Northern Uganda is rather dry but the terrain changes as you near Kampala. There are more hills, trees and grass. The horses enjoyed the grazing and we fell into a routine of stopping every 3km to let them graze for half an hour. They are now eating maize, the only grain readily available in Uganda, but there isn’t much hay or fodder available so it was important for them to graze as much as possible. We also alternated riding and walking every 3km to save their backs after their nasty encounter with the cattle dip. We were informed the rainy season would start on March 15th and sure enough, down it came! We got more than a little wet with water seeping into our tent and through our kit!
On the subject of water, most Ugandans in the countryside rely on hand water pumps. Many have to walk several km to reach these pumps and then wait in long queues for hours. This water, often brackish, tastes and smells awful. Most of these pumps were installed by the UN and various NGOs. Although they make life easier, I do think better water supplies could have been provided – wells, windmills etc. Ugandans were terrorized for decades by Joseph Konyo and his Lord’s Resistance Army, suffering unmentionable atrocities on a daily basis. Many people lived in camps during this frightening time and are only returning to their land now. The vast majority of these people lived their whole lives in these camps and survived on WFP hand outs and have no idea how to farm. All these NGOs are busy with various projects but I think they are working at cross purposes. Teach people how to farm. Teach them how to market their product. Use what is available in Uganda. Try to make their lives easier for example, provide free contraception for women instead of them using local remedies that often leave them feeling ill. I’m going to stop before I get carried away…
Whilst having a break on the side of the road near Murchison Falls, Nali spotted his first baboon. This really wound him up! He watched its every move! Chami wasn’t bothered! He seemed to be more concerned with pigs. Whenever he heard them squealing he would neigh back… I wonder what they were talking about! At this same place we met John Hunwick, an Australian who has lived in Uganda for 40 years! He runs the backpackers in Kampala and he invited us to stay when we arrived there! He also organised for us to stay at the Kawanda Research Station on our way into Kampala. This is an agricultural research station and the hot water and comfy beds were much appreciated!
John guided us to his place through a very busy Kampala. It’s hard to explain just how much traffic there was. There are hundreds of cars, taxis, buses and motorbikes known as boda bodas, most of which are used as taxis with the occasional ice cream bike complete with music! The horses were heroes! They didn’t even blink with all the hooting, pushing and shoving. John also organised a journalist to follow us and write a lovely article in a local magazine. Arriving in Kampala was a completion of a goal and a real achievement. We immediately started to plan the next stage of the journey – who knew that would be such a long time coming!
As you all know, whilst in Kampala, Billy went and had blood tests and was sent back to South Africa where he was diagnosed with leukaemia. I am pleased to report that his treatment is progressing well and he is doing great. He has 2 chemotherapy treatments left to complete, some reconstructive surgery to fix his nose, part of which he lost due to a complication during the first chemotherapy treatment, and then we should be back on the road! Before I followed Billy to South Africa, I met a real life saver! Katia, a serious animal lover, with 16 of her own horses offered to look after Chami and Nali for us which she has been doing since April 2011. When she moved house, they moved with her. They are currently living the life ofRriley on the banks of Lake Victoria. Without Katia, her family and her many animals, we would have been in a real fix. I have been back to visit the horses twice and had a fantastic break each time, making new friends and enjoying life in Entebbe, even joining in the salsa classes!
Thank you to everyone for all your thoughts, prayers and wishes. They have touched us beyond words.
Christy and Billy
To read Christy's earlier update, please click here.
To learn more about Billy and Christy’s Ride Across Africa, please visit their website