March 5, 2008
Dispatch No. 8: Burnt Sugar
The graffitied words drifted past in a blur as my bus
from Nairobi to Kampala entered the battered Kisumu
province. Evidence of its recent troubles whispered
from the remains of torched gas stations and shops-
charred skeletons sprinkled amidst their perfectly intact
"Let's just get through here," I pleaded in
my head as I simultaneously heard the engine splutter
and cut-out, leaving us to coast downhill towards the
heart of town. PERFECT. After passing three hours on
the street trying to be as inconspicuous as possible,
the engine was finally "fixed" and I was able
to re-board the bus.
My relief to leave the troubled area was short-lived
as we came upon a heap of burning vehicles blocking
the road. Rioters standing just feet from the bus were
thoroughly enjoying their strategically placed vehicle-bonfire.
We slowly inched our way through the chaos of angrily
waving fists and pangas (machetes) as I wondered what
I'd gotten myself into.
The frenzied locals spared our bus, but we didn't arrive
at the border until midnight (we were supposed to be
there by 6pm, when it was still light out). At this
point the bus was still spluttering and finally deemed
a lost cause, necessitating a bus-switch: bodies, luggage,
and all of the cargo had to be swapped over.
Crossing the between-borders-no-man's-land on foot in
absolute darkness, passport and money clutched tightly
to my chest, I stayed close to a deaf Ugandan man and
his son who had been my amicable neighbors on the bus
and motioned for me to follow them. I got stamped in
on the other side of the fence and gratefully re-boarded
our new bus. Two more hours and a forty-five minute
taxi ride later, I finally made it to my hostel in Kampala
by 3 AM.
The next day I arrived in Masindi (the nearest town
to our forest field site, about an hour and a half away)
on the National Resistance Army Movement Day, a country-wide
Ugandan holiday. The streets pulsed with the movement
of Ugandan militia marching in precise formation to
the crazy beat of traditional African drums. In town
we were briefed by Ms. Zinta Zommers, the PhD student
from Oxford University whose chimpanzee research we'd
be assisting, and then stocked up on food and supplies
for camp at the local market.
We quickly discovered that it is sugarcane-harvesting
season. This means 24 hours a day large fires snap-crackle-pop
through fields belching grey smoke into the paisley
blue sky. It also means tottering transport trucks are
stuffed to the brim, spilling excess sugar cane as they
bump along the dusty red road. All the way back to camp,
as we followed behind one of these virtual candy dispensers,
kids lined up miles ahead waiting to swoop in and grab
the tasty casualties. The Ugandan ice cream man, I chuckled
to myself, of course I'd find him on my first day here!
The tension I felt in Kenya melted away after crossing
the border. A lighter fresher air lingers about Uganda's
countryside. When we walk down the road passing mud
huts that dot the hills around camp, we are greeted
enthusiastically with the signature two-handed wave
(both hands gesticulating frantically overhead) and
a cheerful "You are welcome!" We are offered
bananas and jack fruit without expectation of payment
and are invited into homes for lunch of fish, cassava,
and millet, often followed by some friendly interrogation.
It usually begins with "Which crops do you grow
at your home? At what time of year?" and sometimes
evolves into, "Can you take me home to your country
as you have now been to my home?" I'm afraid my
response to both questions always disappoints.
Of course conversation is limited to their knowledge
of English and my knowledge of their language. If I
was confused by three languages in the Seychelles, now
I can't walk 20 yards without bumping into a different
dialect. There are some eighty languages peppering the
villages across Uganda. I was surprised to learn the
villages and towns are grouped into 6 to 8 distinct
Kingdoms (my question of the exact number sparked heated
debate amongst the locals I questioned). Each one has
a traditional "King", although it is more
of a title and tradition restored by the current government
than a reality of monarchical power.
Despite the plurality of dialects, and no coherent national
language (like Ki Swahili in Kenya) there is one word
that knows no linguistic boundary. It echoes behind
us in the road, it is called ahead to friends as a warning
or a 'get-a-load-of-this!' It causes small children
to scream bloody murder and run for their lives. I vacillate
between laughing and cringing whenever the word
"MUZUNGU!!!" (WHITE PERSON!!) rings out.
It follows closely on our heels wherever we go, and
as my fellow field assistant and friend, Katie Hall
so eloquently put it, "So this is what it's like
to be a celebrity…or a circus freak."
Our only safe haven from this word is in the forest,
where we spend most of our days hunting for the ridiculously
shy chimps that inhabit our study site known as Busingiro.
Despite the sanctuary it provides,
I have developed a love-hate relationship with the forest.
Just as I begin to settle into the first chunk of our
daily 10 mile trek to find the chimps, I'm quickly reminded
of my status in this complex community. I am a tolerated
visitor, treated like a pesky in-law who has yet again
dropped by uninvited.
My host affords a few nice pleasantries such as the
melody of singing birds, antics of scurrying monkeys,
and bursts of color as butterflies swoosh by, but all
of these are quickly trumped by the unwieldy branch
suddenly stabbing me in the eye or the horizontal root
leaping in the air to snag my big toe and bring me crashing
to my knees. Not to mention the myriad of thorns, spines,
spikes, and burs which find a way to penetrate every
square inch of my tender 'muzungu' skin.
When we actually do find the chimps, which is a momentous
occasion due to its rarity, a feeling of suspicion often
arises. Watching them evokes similar emotions to brushing
shoulders with a stranger whose past is blotted by secrets
I'm not sure I want to know. Similarly, when they look
into my eyes I feel exposed, like they are instantly
pinpointing all my good and bad, my ugly and pure. I
am not sure that I like this.
Or maybe it's collecting their feces and urine that
makes me a bit resentful. Whatever it is, the forest,
chimps, and I have some work to do if we ever hope to
move passed this love-hate stage of our relationship.
One "Discovery Channel Moment" the chimps
did grace us with was a hunt. I was beside myself with
excitement witnessing in living color a scene I'd previously
only watched on TV documentaries.
Before we knew what was happening two chimps had grabbed
and flung a black-and-white colobus monkey out of the
tree, down to their hungry comrades waiting below. Lots
of pant-hoots and screaming ensued, and we later found
some of the remains messed about a "nest"
one of the chimps (probably the alpha male) had constructed
in which to leisurely enjoy his monkey meal. Not a scene
that exactly quelled my suspicions of these byzantine
creatures, but I'll keep you posted as the research
I hope this finds everyone well and look forward to
hearing from you as usual!
Your loving muzungu,
PS. Those of you in the Santa Barbara area should pick
up a copy of the latest Independent, they kindly published
an op-ed piece based on my previous update from Kenya!
Or just check out the online version at:
About "Letters From Africa -
Nine Months with Shannon Switzer": JettyGirl photographer
Shannon Switzer left a few weeks ago on the trip of
a lifetime. Although not necessarily a surf trip per
se, we think her adventure is a story well-worth sharing
with others. Before she departed, a few surf companies
jumped on board with sticker donations for Shannon's
trip. Her plan is to pass stickers out to the kids she
meets as she travels throughout Africa. Special thanks
to all who answered our call for stickers: Transworld
on Water, Mutiny
Media, Leucadia Surf Shop, and Dal Sarcos. The kids
are going to be stoked! If you or your company is interested
in donating stickers to Shannon, please contact me at
email@example.com --Chris Grant