It took me two tries to leave Nairobi for Kampala, that’s how much I like the city. On Tuesday my taxi was a no-show, so I commandeered the driver of the YMCA’s safari van who was slumped over the wheel of his vehicle, and we made good time to the Akamba Bus stage. But for reasons known only to the higher-ups at the Akamba Road Company, the bus to Kampala was also a no-show that morning. The Arusha passengers also waited in vain. Once I’d been refunded I hoisted my overlarge rucksack and literally tore down the road to Kampala Coach’s office. Their bus had just departed, but I bought a ticket for the following morning and, Nairobi just beginning to come to life, made my way back to the YMCA where the staff were surprised to see me back so soon.
The next morning I tried again with better results. The coach departure point was a madhouse, people pushing massive handcarts to and fro, loading enormous burlap bags of cargo into the belly of the bus, and shouting at one another in a half-dozen languages. Our departure wasn’t quite at seven, as scheduled, for we had some seating troubles. A couple of Turkana guys were furious at their seating assignments (which they’d presumably chosen when they bought the tickets) and engaged in a shouting match with the driver and conductor. Other passengers chimed in. “Why don’t you hire your own plane if you don’t want to behave like everyone else?” yelled a portly man in a jean jacket. “Donkeys!” shouted another. “Come on, come on! Tuende!” shouted an Indian guy in an orange robe. One of the disgruntled Turkana said something in Swahili about the driver discriminating against them. “Oh, don’t go talking politics”, complained the conductor. Eventually, several of us switched seats, customers were placated, and we went on our way.
Our journey took us out into the heart of the suburbs, spectacular in their affluence. Villas, castles, semi-detached townhouses, country homes, haciendas of every size and description were scattered around the area past Westlands. The dazzling wealth was highlighted by their proximity to slums of terrible squalor—dwellings, shops and structures of every other variety pieced together with bits of tin, wood, and the occasional wall of brick or cement. In some cases, the fortress-like walls of a suburb ran directly into one of the slums. Soon we were out of the city altogether, and passing through farmland not unlike that which characterises much of the highlands that make up Central Province. The weather had started the turn the previous day, and the morning was overcast, clouds hanging low and heavy, and the air thick with mist. This, after all, was why the British decided to settle this part of Africa—the climate reminded ofhome, and Nairobi was designed to be a railroad town, a mere stopping point on the Lunatic Express that led to what was to be the Pearl of the British Empire in Africa—Uganda.
That’s how the logic of Empire works, after all. The British needed India because it brought them wealth and power. They needed a secure route to India, which meant that they needed Egypt. They needed a secure border for Egypt because they needed Egypt for India, and this meant they needed the Sudan. Because they needed the Sudan to secure Egypt to hold the route to India they needed the Nile kept clear, so they needed the source (yes, in the nineteenth century they were afraid that someone was going to stop up the flow of the Nile). This, obviously, meant that they needed Uganda. To access Uganda with greater ease they built a railroad from the coast, and for this (you guessed it) they needed Kenya. A slippery slope...
My attention was ripped from this precarious line of logic as the bus slowed and I looked out to my left. The Rift Valley is a breathtaking sight. It reminds me of the Myth of Dwinelle Hall at Berkeley—that two brothers fell out while building it and never spoke to one another during construction, as a result of which none of the floors or numbering systems match, and many freshmen are irretrievably lost in the bowels of the building each year. In East Africa, it’s as though two separate geological forces set to work creating the region, one coming from the East, the other from the West. When they met, they found that one had been labouring thousands of feet above the other, but they simply shrugged their sedimentary shoulders and left it for posterity to work out. Which is why I was looking out over a vast—endless really—valley, thousands of feet below me, where the sun was shining.
I drifted off to sleep and awoke as we passed by Nakuru. Here, in the valley, the landscape was desiccated, scrub-like, and if I hadn’t known from reading the game reports from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s that the wildlife in this region was almost entirely shot out outside of National Parks, I’d have expected lions to be lurking in the dry grass beneath the scraggly-looking acacias. People plodded along the roadside, on foot, on bicycle, and occasionally urging a team of donkeys loaded with firewood or jerry cans onwards. Nakuru had an unfinished, dusty look to it, and was gone in a matter of minutes, although we were joined by a travelling saleswoman, the Kenyan equivalent of the Avon Lady, who harangued us from the bus aisle for a good half hour about life-saving facial products. On the basis of this experience, I’d say the most important qualification for her position was volume, and boy oh boy was hers impressive.
I slept again, and when I awoke we were ascending. We made frequent use of the ‘climbing lane’ here, as we overtook innumerable trucks making their way slowly up the incline. The country was open here near the road, and the bends not too sharp, thankfully, otherwise it would have been unnerving making our way up in the face of cargo trucks and logging trucks roaring down. The trucks and the forested, dry countryside reminded me of Oak Run and the logging trucks that come grinding their way down Smith Logging Road and down into the valley, swaying to the combination of their momentum and cargo. Even the trees didn’t look so different from Northern California—pine and fir for the most part.
Our route took us over the equator (straddled by Mount Kenya National Park further to the east), and along and sometimes over the old, disused railroad line, which must have been incredibly picturesque as it wound up the ridges above the valleys, through the forests, through tunnels and over faltering highland streams. As we approached and passed into Eldoret the landscape grew drier still, and flattened out. We stopped for lunch in Eldoret at the Mubarak Cafe (just down the street from the Cairo Bank and a picturesque mosque). On pulling out of town, the gentle—or not so gentle—rocking of the bus put me into a sweaty slumber. It was nearing two o’clock, the day was warm, and the bus was not, as advertised, air conditioned. When I awoke we were perhaps half-way between Eldoret and Malaba, the border-crossing. I guessed that we had been descending, because the countryside had changed again. This was the Africa of Hollywood. Impossibly green fields, dotted with thatched huts. Women carrying baskets on their heads made their way precariously along mud causeways that divided up the fields. Cranes, storks and egrets wheeled in the sky, perched on acacias and palms, or picked their stately way through the grass. Late though the rains are, the rivers here looked healthier than elsewhere in Kenya.
A while later we reached the border and alighted from the couch to make our way through Kenyan and Ugandan customs before catching up with the bright-red coach again on the other side. It was nearing five when we went on our way into Uganda. The roadside shops, ubiquitous in this part of Africa (cement fronts painted brightly to advertise Safaricom, KBC, Tuskers and the like) looked a bit more worn, and there were more huts and fewer cement dwellings, as well as more of the sleek, white, long-horned cattle, but otherwise the countryside looked much the same until we entered a dense, almost jungly forest. Then we started overtaking a line of big-rigs. It was miles long, and we wondered over the fact that we hadn’t met a car coming the other direction.
We learned why when we found several of the trucks pulled smack across the road, blocking traffic in both directions. Apparently, truck drivers had been refusing to pay the toll up ahead since the previous day, and were now blocking the road in protest, demanding bribes from vehicles coming either way. Our irate conductor, in his bright red jumpsuit, chewing furiously on his toothpick, bounded down from the bus, together with several, mostly portly, middle-aged passengers. They remonstrated furiously with the truckers, haranguing them, accusing them of corruption and extortion. One guy whipped out a video camera and began filming the whole affair. I don’t know whether their efforts were successful, or whether there was some settlement further down the line, but things eventually lurched slowly into action. With our conductor and his posse acting as a kind of advance-guard, we crawled down the road at a kilometre or so per hour.
The sun was setting by the time we began moving at something like a reasonable pace again, but I was too tired and hot to marvel over its spectacular beauty. The going was slow, as we were almost continuously slowing down for and overtaking the big rigs which must have been backed up for at least ten miles. This was a practise which we disconcertingly continued after darkness fell, even though only about half the cars on the road had their headlights switched on. At Jinja, the air grew momentarily cooler, and when I looked out my window I realised that this was because we were passing over the Victoria Nile as it emerged from its source. The light from the buildings on the hills above the river flickered fleetly over the slow moving but already-wide river, and the bowed heads of the cranes at the harbour looked like weary guardians of the source of one of the world’s great rivers. The cool air didn’t last, and my seat had become a pool of sweat, the spreading of which was assisted by the fact that all of the windows on our side of the bus were stuck closed.
I was rather delirious as we drove through Kampala. Every time we slowed, boda bodas (motorbikes) swarmed around the sides of the buses, the whine of their engines and their agility as they jockeyed for fares reminding me for some reason of mosquitoes. At the stage, I staggered off the bus and requested a taxi, feeling no compulsion to risk my life on a boda boda in the dark, crowded streets. As I waited for the car to trundle up the street, distracted by a tout in front of me, I felt a hand going for my wallet and didn’t feel at all guilty when, swinging around, my rather large rucksack sent the individual in question flying backwards into a pile of onlookers. In the taxi, I noted that someone had swiped by bug-spray and sunscreen from the back pocket of my rucksack, a nice welcome to Kampala, but it could have been worse.
It was after 11 p.m. as I stumbled into my room at the Aponye Hotel, a long time indeed after my morning departure from Nairobi. A shower had seldom felt so good, and I fell asleep quickly in the heartland of the old Buganda Kingdom...where police are once again cracking down on the opposition.