Saturday, May 17, 2014

Arrest on the Nile

In July and August 2012 I traveled to Uganda for a field course on ant taxonomy.  I arrived in Uganda a couple weeks early to travel on my own before the course started.  This post is one part of a long note originally written on August 5 to let my friends and family know what I’d been up to in that time.  It was my first public update since the final Around the World post one year earlier.  Although I’ve broken it up for M2M, the original long note attempted to tell the entire Uganda story in one sitting from an internet café in Entebbe.  Despite some editing, the manic, rushed and unorganized tone remains.

I haven't written a note in quite a while, mainly because I have no reason to.  I once again, however, find myself compelled to put finger to keyboard and let the world know I breathe.  This is a note to my family and interested friends who may be wondering exactly what I'm up to mucking about Uganda, with no communication since I left the US.  It's true that I have been doing a fair bit of mucking about, but only in a positive sense, I assure you.

First off, I want to recognize my former classmate Tianna Madison who just performed in the women's 100m at the Olympics.  I first met Tianna in my hometown when I was twelve, and I never imagined then that in fifteen years I would be in Uganda watching her represent our country in the Olympics.  Seeing a fellow Elyrian on screen, in a room full of Europeans and Africans, was one of the highlights of my time in Uganda.  Tianna has proven that Elyrians can do great things after all!

Now, East Africa...

Perhaps the single most important thing to note about any visit to Uganda is that there have probably been humans in Uganda for as long as there have been humans.  That can be said of only a handful of places on this planet, and its significance is difficult to overstate.  Modern humans originated in East Africa.  This is the place that shaped us as a species and we bear its legacy today in our culture, art, and biology.  East Africa is the only place where one can put humankind in its proper context.  Uganda is not just home to the people who happen to live there today.  It is home to us all.  For any human, anywhere, a journey to East Africa is a pilgrimage, a step toward understanding oneself.  It is, after all, our only native habitat in the Universe.  If we "belong" anywhere, it is here.

Alternatively, speaking of German South Africa, Thomas Pynchon said that Europeans visit "colonies" because they "are the outhouses of the European soul, where a fellow can let his pants down and relax, enjoy the smell of his own shit."

Am I a pilgrim on a voyage of self-discovery, or am I just an imperialist enjoying an exotic and drawn out number two?

I spent a few days in the southwest, acquainting myself with the people, the landscape and the biology.  But everything felt too tame.  I mean, as tame as you can get with elephants and lions about.  I felt myself being drawn instead to Kidepo Valley National Park, the most remote park in Uganda.

I spent a few days in Southwest Uganda, exploring first the savannas and lakes of Lake Mburo National Park…

…followed by the grasslands and forest gorges of Queen Elizabeth National Park

Kidepo Valley lies in the Karamoja region in the northeast, on the border with South Sudan and only miles from Kenya.  The US government has this to say about Northeast Uganda: "U.S. citizens traveling to the Karamoja region in northeastern Uganda should also be aware of ongoing conflict and armed banditry in this region...the North suffers from a general lack of infrastructure... Cattle rustling, armed banditry, and attacks on vehicles are common in the Karamoja region of northeastern Uganda... U.S. citizens are advised to avoid travel to the Karamoja region given the frequent insecurity."

Likewise, the UK government weighs in with "If you wish to visit Kidepo Valley National Park we recommend that you travel by air rather than road... We advise against all travel to Karamoja... Lawlessness there is endemic (eg road ambushes). Tribal clashes are frequent and unpredictable. Small arms are widespread and deaths or injury from gunshot wounds occur regularly."

In addition, the area you have to pass through on the way only became stable a few years ago with the expulsion of Joseph Kony.  Naturally, I had to go, and I had to go by road.  I was sure I'd be fine.  After all, I don't have any cattle, and I have no beef with the Karamojong.

The driver I had hired for the first few days—a jolly and hyper man named Nicholas—agreed to drive to Kidepo.  So we set out in his Land Cruiser to cross the country from southwest to northeast.  The psychological first step for a trip north is to cross the Nile.  In this part of Uganda the Nile flows east to west and forms the traditional border between the often unstable north and the main population center of the south.  A single bridge links the two sections of the country, crossing the Nile where it flows over a series of rapids called Karuma Falls.

After a few days in Southwest Uganda, Nicholas agreed to drive me to Kidepo Valley in the northeast corner of the country

The Nile here differs from its northern sections where it flows through the Egyptian Sahara.  At Karuma Falls it is lined on the north bank by lush tropical spray forest in Murchison Falls National Park, and on the southwest by similar forest in Karuma Game Reserve.  The southeast bank is human-cleared grassland containing an infantry barracks and military base.  A handful of lanky undisciplined Ugandan infantry guard the bridge…if you can first make it past the troop of aggressive olive baboons.

A National Park, a Game Reserve and a military base all meet at the bridge where the Nile flows over Karuma Falls

Apparently the Ugandan Army doesn't appreciate tourists photographing Karuma Falls.  I took a few photos out the window while driving, and a Sergeant saw my camera and pulled us over.  He came to the window and against Nicholas's protests demanded I get out of the truck.  Of course, I refused.  So then he demanded my camera.  Again, I refused.  He reached in the window and grabbed my camera and tried to force it from my hands, but I didn't let go.  Thus went our first of many tugs-of-war.

The Sergeant said he had to arrest me and had me get out of the car and stand on the side of the road with his underlings—a Corporal and two Privates—standing by.  At some point he finally explained why I can't take photographs—about two kilometers to the east, two artillery guns are visible on the south bank and show up as tiny specks in any photos of the falls.

With his underlings surrounding me, he felt more confident and tried a few more times to take my camera.  Again, I didn't let him.  The ordeal went on for minutes, him telling me I was under arrest, demanding my camera and trying to grab me, and me asking what I had done wrong.  The Oregonians in Sulawesi taught me a useful lesson about getting arrested.  They told me that as a tourist, unless you do something really criminal, you can only get arrested if you let them arrest you.  I kept that in mind as I struggled with the soldier every time he put his hands on me.  I mean, if a US Marine Sergeant can't hold his own against a Sergeant in the Ugandan Army, he probably isn't trying hard enough.

The Sergeant eventually gave up on me and told me he was going to arrest Nicholas—a native Ugandan—instead.  They pulled Nicholas out of the truck and brought him over.  Somewhere along the line the conversation devolved into bribe negotiations.  What the Sergeant didn't know is that few Ugandan soldiers will underbid me on the value of my own life.  He initially asked for 50,000 shillings ($20).  Nicholas protested that I had no money.  He said I spent it all to hire him, and that was true.  Fortunately, I was wearing my worst shirt—an old skivvy shirt, threadbare and full of holes—and hadn't shaved or washed my hair in some time.  I pointed out to the soldiers that they had nicer clothes than I did.  They seemed to agree and settled on 10,000 shillings ($4).

I paid a small bribe to keep this photo, taken through the window of our moving truck.  The cleared area with communication towers on the south bank is the military base the Army doesn’t want tourists photographing.

We might’ve gone lower but Nicholas gave in.  So I had to pay $4 and waste some time in exchange for the photos, but it was worth it.  Back on the road and across the bridge Nicholas and I vented to each other and laughed about it.

We had entered the north.

On the down side, if I can convince a Ugandan soldier I’m poor I must look pretty terrible...

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