Friday, 16 March 2007


First Impressions of Uganda

I am sitting in our half finished canteen staring out over Lake Albert and on to the mountains that mark the eastern edge of Congo. My colleague here, a large, very large South African medic said earlier that he could not believe how quickly the days had passed since our arrival. Feeling the way I do, tired and aching, I cannot believe that it is only the sixth day in the field. Yesterday alone we transported 550 tonnes of hardcore and muram and have surfaced over three kilometres of road. The coffer dam is taking shape and the plant breaks down only occasionally (all of it was knackered when I arrived on site). The toilets now work and I can, at least once a day, enjoy a few moments of peace and quiet reflection without some oik bringing me some new problem to solve. The food is good, the view spectacular and sleeping in a tent is nowhere near as uncomfortable as one might imagine. Besides, I was used to it once and I am getting used to it again.

The work is interesting, if on occasion demanding but it is doing me good. I get up at five in the morning and retire usually around ten. My illicit store of whisky will run out soon and there will be no re-supply. Then I will be on beer until drilling starts, then it is completely dry. The camp is nowhere near finished, the contractor cites lack of locally available materials, so as we sit in our little canteen, wide open to the countryside and resembling a Mexican road side saloon, we are exposed to the curious gaze of locals, about three and a half villages worth of them, fascinated by whatever it is these two ‘Mazungos’ are up to with all their big trucks and machinery.

We are building the camp, (which is only a gateway camp, the drilling site is an uncomfortable hour’s speedboat ride away, or a nauseating six hour chug on the barge), next to a village called Umbego. Until we arrived, they had no roads and the only wheeled transport was a bicycle (except maybe the odd locally produced wheelbarrow or two). Their fishing boats, for all the villages on the shores of Lake Albert depend on the natural resources of the lake, are constructed from logs laboriously transported on the backs of men from the top of the escarpment, some 20 odd kilometres distant and dominating our eastern aspect, before being hewn into planks with tools that archaeologists specialising in Viking culture drool over when they tug them out of some Scandinavian bog so ancient looking are they. Then, with only a bagful of nails, they shape these planks into craft that float, more or less, and sail them far out onto the lake every night. Sadly the valley, many hundreds of miles long and at least a hundred wide in some places, generates a sometimes fairly malicious micro climate that whips up the most violent storms. In the last month alone, over 80 souls have been lost to the lake, all victims of the sudden and highly dramatic squalls that descend with little and evidently insufficient warning on the hapless fisherfolk. Little wonder then, that most of the pescadores of Umbego have beached their boats and prefer to work as casual labourers on my construction site. At least I can finish my construção a bit quicker even if it does mean less fish on the menu.

These villagers, the Umbigos as I can’t help calling them, find us all fascinating. Every evening at the conclusion of whatever activity it is that has kept them occupied throughout the day, they congregate along the security fence and stare with ill disguised fascination at the developing camp that is rising out of the bush so close to their hitherto tranquil and, one can only assume, achingly dull habitat. Approach the fence too quickly (I might be striding purposely toward the fuel store to beat the guard up for sloppy and frankly quite fairy tale like accounting) and they start backwards with evident fear. Smile like a playful chimpanzee destroying a tea service in Twycross Zoo, however, and they cheer and clap as if they were a circus audience witnessing the explosive dispatch of an inept human cannonball. Unnervingly, they are still there at five in the morning as I trudge, sponge bag in hand though alternating dust or mud wrapped only in a towel from my tent to our ‘senior’ shower block.

All things considered, though, this is quite close to paradise, if only for the absence of a constantly ringing phone, the acrimonious attention of a shiny arse boss and stale coffees from a machine designed to go wrong if asked to brew more than one lukewarm beverage an hour. Every paradise, at least those in this world however, has its downside. Here it is lake flies. This idyllic corner of the earth has other downsides too. Last week, six workers were bitten by scorpions and one died after being bitten three times by a clearly incensed snake (he decided to have a kip in a culvert without asking the owner, said snake, first). The constraints of the narrow culvert obviously made rapid, adrenalin fuelled egress impossible and the Cobra injected so much venom in those three strikes that not even all the anti-venom in the medic's kit bag made the slightest difference and the unfortunate victim expired frothing at the mouth and only the whites of his eyes visible within the hour.

A few months ago one hapless soul had his arm torn off by a crocodile. He was merely rinsing his hands in the water after relieving himself. Imagine if the croc had struck but a few moments earlier. Two weeks ago, a hippopotamus with a grievance against the camp that will remain forever unknown, broke through the security fence and barged around the camp destroying tents and scattering the understandably unhappy campers until it was dispatched into the next world by an eager AK47 armed security team who laid down the sort of concentrated fire last witnessed, on African soil at least, at Rorke’s Drift. As I write, the back of my neck is suffused an angry red and coated with blisters as I endure what feels to me like third degree burns after foolishly, as it now turns out, squashing an insignificant looking insect that had the temerity to crawl across my skin. Acid Beetle? Never heard of it. They call it Nairobi Eye round these parts. Blimey, what kind of masochist let’s this insect from hell crawl all the way around their neck and into their eye without squashing it first?

None of these admittedly unpleasant and in some cases fatal irritations compare in the slightest with the excruciating discomfort occasioned by Lake Flies. These miniscule pests do not even miss a wing beat as they pass effortlessly through mosquito nets laced with enough insecticide to annihilate complete eco-systems so that they can while a way the night indulging in their favourite pastime, zooming around any available light source in decreasing and ever more frantic circles, hell bent on diving suicidally into the nearest receptacle, or orifice. Ear, nose and throat specialists, as well as those eye specialists not too busy smearing flammazine onto toasted corneas, could do as roaring a trade as a Victorian chimney sweep so many tubes of the recently overwhelmed need clearing. They appear in their millions, billions. There must be 10 to the something enormous number of them out there and, as we evidently present the only light source in the rift valley, they all head here and, via my ineffectual mosquito net, into my eyes, ears, nose and throat and, worst of all judging by the sludge that accumulates so depressingly quickly in my whisky glass, they’re alcoholics to boot. I have inadvertently inhaled so much particulate protein that I do not need to eat anymore and I am still putting on weight. They say it is healthier to eat little and often. Those last three words about sum these little bastards up.

Still, my employers are aware of the minor irritations occasioned by the local fauna that I must endure and are compensating me handsomely for the, admittedly only occasional discomfort. Not only that, they have given me toys to play with. A Toyota Landcruiser. So widespread and numerous are these leviathans that its only slightly larger cousin, the African Elephant is all but extinct by comparison. In addition to the Toyota, a motorcycle, nimble and agile enough to allow me to play tag with the lions as I dart through the bush from one construction site to another and, best of all, a speed boat. The drill site is wholly inaccessible by road so steep are the walls of the escarpment that surrounds it. The only alternatives are a usually hairy ride in a light aircraft which has to come all the way from Kampala, a round trip which is a trifle uneconomic just for a twenty minute flight along the lake shore at the end of it, or, a boat ride. My boat, the company paid for it but it sits in my camp and the ignition keys are in my pocket, so it is my boat, could, if I my instinct for self preservation was as similarly retarded as that of a volunteer special constable in Johannesburg, do the trip almost as fast. Eight and a half metres long with 400 horse power to propel it along, blades chopping through water, crocs, hippos, fisherman’s nets and whatever else they can chew their way through can crack along at a respectable 45 knots. I know that a little Cessna can do three times that but excluding waiting for the bloody thing to turn up in the first place (inclement weather plays as much havoc with schedules as do rotting leaves on British Rail’s tracks), I do not have to bounce across 15kms of countryside (I am not responsible for this particular stretch of road, no-one is, that’s why it is so awful) to get to the nearest dirt strip, I just have to stroll a mere 500 metres down to the lake shore and climb into the boat and roar off. I will get my feet wet but it is but a minor inconvenience, I assure you, and the views across the lake are spectacular. Try pushing an elephant, I mean a Landcruiser out of a two foot deep quagmire closely attended by an increasingly interested pride of lions and a rather more distant, but equally entranced group of Umbegans and you'll pick the boat every time,

Still, faced with the conditions that the labour force is currently suffering, we have five star accommodation. We only had to face two days of exposing our genitalia to scorpion stings while dumping in the bush, they still have no ablution or toilet facility at all. As I am also responsible for the environment, I have deliberately avoided seeking out the answer to the obvious question of what the desperate sods are doing in the meantime. Even though they are not my labour force, they belong to the contractor responsible for building the camp, I do feel for them but the Contractor’s representative is about as dynamic and self motivated as a stunned slug. Short of beating him with a log, I have run out of ways, subtle and not so subtle, to encourage him to get the job done and quickly. Kampala have informed me that his boss will be coming to the site to help speed things up and that I am not to let him leave until I am satisfied the work has been completed. If we had a wooden floor I would nail one of his feet to it giving him enough mobility to survey the site but impeding an illicit escape. Sadly, I do not think that I would get away with it.

Anyway. The sun has gone down and I am trying to communicate with a contraption thrust as high as I could atop a rod and adorned with more cable than a Lagos telephone pole. At least I now have email access but who knows how long the pole will remain in the vertical with the gales that regularly blow off the escarpment and across the lake, no doubt claiming a few more victims at the same time? It is hard to decide which is preferable, lying on top of my tent to stop it blowing away but no lake flies, or tranquil weather and millions of the little bleeders......

Still, it's a living and not a bad one at that.

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