Those of you who have been around and reading the Post for the last three years may remember that in 2000 I took myself off to Africa for the second half of my Gap year. This year I returned.
Firstly - a little background. Since Yoweri Museveni came to power in the mid-80s there has been rebellion in northern Uganda. It doesn't help that the country borders Sudan in the north, and that the border situation is fairly fluid, but the Lords Resistance Army - LRA - is one of two problems1 that Museveni and his government are unable to control. It's not quite clear what the LRA wants, apart from a Uganda ruled under the ten commandments, but basically it seems that their leader - Kony - doesn't like Museveni, and is quite happy to go around terrorising the north of Uganda. The area is pretty much off-limits to non-essential travel, as ambushes are common on the roads, while the local children are kidnapped to fight or be concubines for the soldiers.
A week or so before we arrived in Uganda Kony had headed further south than normal to Soroti - about 100km north of Mbale - and carried off a large group of schoolgirls, causing chaos. Jan has links in the area - her housekeeper Grace, comes from a village in Teso, the tribal area that includes Soroti, and Jan is involved in the family, supporting Grace's half-sisters Jane and Monica in their education - Monica is one of Jan's 'daughters'. So when the trouble broke out, 22 members of the extended family - Grandmother2, Mother, mother's seven children, including two week old Peter, and assorted other children arrived in Mbale, having spent two days walking and sleeping out in the bush.
Thus when we arrived in Mbale there were swarms of children around the place. Great care was required in crossing Jan's main room in case you stepped on one of them, while small Philip - aged two - was a constant source of amusement. By the end of our first week the situation in Soroti had settled down enough for the refugees to go home. Therefore, on a Saturday morning we packed 27 people3 into Jan's small pickup and headed north. There were five people in the front cab - Jan, Grandmother, Mother, Philip and Peter - and 22 of us in the back: 18 children, myself, Fiona, Grace, and Simon - the husband of one of Jan's nurses who lives in the compound and is an Mteso.
Travelling in Uganda is fantastic. The roads are good - well, for East Africa4 - and it's a treat just to watch the country go by. The family's village of Lalle, near Soroti, is on the plains of Uganda, a great contrast to Mbale but still green - with crops spreading out as far as you can see in all directions. The villages are different too - the Bugisu of the Mbale area live in compact villages, but the Teso live on what are almost small homesteads, the next family home almost invisible through the distance and crops.
To get to Lalle we turned off the main, tarred road onto a murram road, then onto a small track, then onto a small footpath, before driving up into the clearing between four small houses - some made of brick, some of mud and wood - to a warm welcome. There were even more children who had stayed at home, and those who arrived with us were obviously delighted to be back. They showed us around with pride, taking us to see their nearby pump, and laughing us as we took photos of everything from the pineapple plants to a dog tied up with a bicycle chain.
As is the nature of visiting people in East Africa we didn't get to leave until they had fed us. So we watched our dinner progress from being chased around the huts by the children into chicken stew, whilst talking to the men5 and being fed Chai - very sweet, very milky 'tea6' - something else I had to learn to like again. When the time came for us to leave we discovered that the pick-up had a flat tyre - so the men put their best feet forward and fixed it. Then we clambered in, Philip insisting on being passed up after us to hug everyone goodbye and headed home.