At each checkpoint we have asked the Police how to get to Pallisa, even though the maps show the route very precisely, and taking into account the scale of the map, very clearly. It is obvious that none of the police can read a map (one enthusiastic sergeant tried to decipher it upside down and made it clear he knew where he was and where we should go) but they are keen to help. More to the point, if we have asked for help, and you have thrust a map under their nose, they are less inclined to ask you to open the vehicle for, while giving you directions you don’t actually need, the traffic is quickly piling up behind you and they rapidly feel the pressure to move you on. Gentle psyops in action.
After our deal with the unsavoury police on the outskirts of Tororoa we drive on to Mbele and make good time. The road is good (sealed) and we are unhindered by any slow trucks as we had been in Kenya. In fact, there seems to be very few large vehicles at all. Rather, the number of motor bikes has increased significantly and we have to care to steer around wide loads which protrude from the backs of any two wheeler. It would be easy to clip one of these and send riders and passengers alike off the road in a flash.
The countryside is noticeably drier than Kenya. The Kenyans had been complaining about the lack of rain but Kenya seems verdant enough despite the grumbling. Uganda is another story altogether and the country has a decidedly parched look about it. But it’s not just the geography which differs. There is an expression of poverty among the rural folk which is more extreme than that of the rural people in Kenya. Houses are less well kept and people seem less preoccupied with industry, whether that is agriculture, small time manufacture, or small road-side stalls.
Mbelle, an hour up the road, is due north of the border crossing. Mbelle marks a degradation of the quality of the road and we shift from smooth bitumen to a mix of bitumen and potholes. There are no road signs or any indication we are on the right path as we negotiate through a rough town that has little or no charm. We know the route from here to Pallisa is due west from Mbelle and we pick a road that is clearly pointed in that direction. At the last moment we spot a sign that says ‘Kampala’ so we know we are on the correct rough, potholded highway which the road has now become. But we have been directed by no less than three police at those earlier check points that we need to take a right turn at Kamonkoli, twelve kilometers out of Mbele. Kenyan towns are usually signposted with their name. Even the smallest towns. That is not the case in rural Uganda. We are never sure where we are exactly except by dead reckoning thanks to the odometer. Ideally it would be odometer and watch but the varying and ever slowing speeds make the timepiece the source of serious errors in our guesstimates so we leave it alone and stick to distance alone. We roll through a non descript village with the usual shop fronts, rusty iron fences and numerous motor cycles and find ourselves on a patch of road under repair – which looks a lot like the road not under repair! We hit kilometre 15 so stop and double check Google Maps on the phone (somehow, by some significant miracle, we have coverage) and a small intersection appears behind us, at about kilometre 12 which had been forecast. We backtrack and discover we have just passed through Kimonkoli and the road we are looking for is not only not signposted but it is more like a narrow lane between rusty tin shacks. 50m in and we turn left, onto what we hope will be the road to Pallisa. We scan a myriad of shop front signs and observe postings and hoardings and finally spot, among all the advertising, a small reference to Pallisa.
We are informed Pallisa is 45km away. On the map it looks close. But it is 45km of potholed bulldust track which in places vanishes altogether into beds of rock which appear like an occasional reef ripping out of the landscape and threatening to wreck us. And we would indeed be wrecked except we ease our way very carefully over these shoals.
The countryside is all farmed, though at this moment much of the ground is turned and lying fallow. Smoke lifts from the occasional patch of stubble fire. Straggly cassava plants are mixed up with the scattered maize stalks and in low lying ground, usually marked by black soil, we find rice paddies. Small villages appear every four or five kilometres, no doubt sited by the reasonable ‘there and back’ time it takes to walk to the neighbours. The outskirts of each one are marked by circular huts made with either mud or fired brick, each roofed with reed stalks or grass or sometimes a mix of both. Through the heart of the village the road, always deeply potholed, is lined with trees, most often densely foliated mangos, in the shade of which people sit on their motorbikes, or stand and watch us crawl past. Set behind the mangos are simple box structures with a front slightly higher than the front to allow rain to run off an otherwise unpitched roof. Doors and windows are mostly holes in the walls, with no fittings. Rubbish lies everywhere, along with discarded timber and iron. There are few animals. The occasional goat or two dot the town, as do cattle. Rarely seen is a dog. There are no donkeys – they seem to be a Kenyan speciality.
As we negotiate and ease our way along the obstacle course which is the main street every one is watching. A vehicle like this is unusual (we see none like it in the villages or on the roads) and rarer still is the mazungu driver. We are moving so slowly we are able to greet most villagers though the open windows, and wave a personal wave to those standing about. Their response becomes warmer and warmer the further we move along the track and smile by smile the sour taste of the Tororo Police ‘Express Pardon’ dissipates. As we move out of each village we are still in the middle of a crowd of people. Never is the view devoid of pedestrians or cyclists, the latter somehow making progress along this challenging course. The occasional Boda Boda lurches past, on or towards us, and on two occasions a Matatu crashes past, one with goods on its roof which are barely secure, threatening to topple off at any instant. We watch in anticipation but somehow everything stays on. The pedestrians move along the side of the track and are quick with their smiles and helloes but with only one cheery exception we are the ones who initiate the exchange. That‘s okay – the response is worth it. The toddlers are the exception to that rule and on multiple occasions we heard them before we saw them, shrieking out ‘Mazungu’ out from under the shade of a mango. We would shout back and wave, a response that always triggered convulsions of laughter, jumping and hand waving. Their delight is infectious and we can’t help ourselves from smiling. The 45kms ends after two and half hours which is not too bad given the state of the track.
The track lifts towards the high ground of Pallisa, We pass some brick outlier buildings and roll past a small steel fabrication place. A pair of friendly faces wave at us and we wave back and drive into town and pull up in front of a service station. We have been sent some texts guiding us to our destination but they need interpreting given the sender assumed our arrival from a different direction. As I re-read them there is a tap on the window. Two boys who waved at us a moment ago are standing there beaming. I don’t catch what they say so ask them if they know “Trish”.
“Mum Trish (they make it sound more like ‘Ma’am Trish’) yes.”
I invite them to jump in the back seat which they do, tripping over smiles that threaten to crack their heads in two. They direct us most ably to the house. We pull up at a pair of rusty steel panels. Hands appear at the top, bolts are slid and gate opens to a bunch of grinning faces connected to a motley collection of teen boys. And the grin of “Trish”, our hostess. We are finally here.
Diary 7 February 2017
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