“Oh no,” Ruganzu, after being roused awake to assist in the collection of the Gypsy Queen from the bus station, passed me his phone to read the message she had just sent:
Just crossing the border now. Bus is late. Should arrive by one.
“Merde,” I said aloud. “I had a feeling.” It was nine am and we were on the bypass to reach the pick-up point where the 12-hour bus ride was expected to arrive by ten.
But now that we had a few hours to pass we ended up driving to the museum to collect more empty bottles, taking back roads that even Ruganzu had never come across before.
Kampala basically means Seven Hills, on which the city was first built on. Now it’s spread across 13. It’s a city surrounded by lush green hills, giant land marks like the Gaddafi mosque (second largest in Africa) and various high rises.
It also has worse traffic than Nairobi, but that’s just one nomad’s opinion.
At about midday the El Niño rains exploded over Uganda’s capital providing a wet welcome for the Gypsy Queen who arrived an hour later. The streets had turned from paved roads to mini-rivers, almost demanding that we accessorise with paddles.
I hadn’t seen GQ for a while as she had been in India visiting family and friends. After squeezing her into a hug I then squeezed her into Ruganzu’s tiny yet classy Nissan and we drove off to pitch our tent in his garden.
“What happened?” I asked, as Ruganzu navigated the river-like streets of the city.
“So,” she began, “we had already left Nairobi and had been driving for two hours when the bus turned around to pick up some passengers that had arrived late on their connecting bus.”
I shook my head in the, ‘I’m-not-surprised’ kinda way. “TIA,” I grinned. The rain subsided by the time we reached Kira Town (pronounced Chira) where Ruganzu lives. I pointed out the pigs, the neighbours I had met the day before, prepared her for Freddy’s addiction to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and to Grace’s warm hospitality.
Casqued hornbills flew in that evening to greet the Gypsy Queen. The next two days we spent going around Kampala with Ruganzu, checking out the art classes where he teaches in the university, meeting the Norwegian girls and sleeping in our tent to the sound of pigs that would have you thinking that perhaps you’ve pitched a tent next door to a CIA torture chamber. A rooster tried – repeatedly – to tempt the sun to come out from 2 in the AM, only satisfied when the great yellow star finally rose at six.
The Gypsy Queen, being an artist herself and having brought together an art collective under the name of Osotua Creative Collective, gave Ruganzu some ideas for his eco-art studio like creating a roof-top terrace, a fire-pit with leftover tiles and other ideas.
Ruganzu is also Kampala’s TEDX Talks curator. It’s like the main TED talks only focuses on local stuff. “You guys should come and do a talk in January,” Ruganzu invited us. “You can talk about surviving without money and hitch hiking,” he said to me, “and you can explain about mandalas and string art,” he said to GQ.
We both looked at each other with raised eyebrows. “Sounds good,” I said. “Let’s dwell on it.”
“Now we go to visit Mr Kato and his treehouse,” he said.
Mr Kato is an mzee scratching his 70s. “A few years ago I decided that I want to live in my tree,” he explained why he had built a house, a chicken coup and a rabbit run in a tree, hooking up power from his earth-based house. “I love trees and I want to promote conservation.”
To do so, Mr Kato, having worked most of his life in physical labour, now sings and dances for schools and any event that will have him. He basically does a lip-sync to country song, a surprisingly popular genre in Africa, in full country get up.
“You play the guitar?” he noticed my six-string.
“Yeah,” I said, taking out Ol’ Red and strumming a chord. I then broke into Johnny Cash which had Mr Kato dancing in his treehouse. I played for about an hour and then GQ and I were given the grand tour. His bed was in the upstairs, a few branches branching in, wasp nests in the ceiling, geckos chasing mosquitoes on the walls.
“Respect nature and it respects you,” he preached to the choir.
The next morning, a Tuesday, Ruganzu took us to the bypass. After our parting we hiked down the escarpment to the tar road where within three minutes Paul stopped for us in his Toyota shuttle van and took us to the junction that would lead us to Masaka, about 130 K’s south.
“My friends and I have started a group called The Mountain Slayers,” he explained. “We are going to try and hike one mountain every year.”
“Where have you hiked?” I asked.
“We are starting later this year,” he said.
Twenty minutes later we were at the roundabout in Busigi on the road that leads to Masaka, the next big town on our way to the village of Rubuguri, just shy of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park – home to Uganda’s gorillas.
Within 10 minutes Emmanuel had stopped.
“No money?” he blinked in confusion as I explained our bartering ways. He was going to Masaka but said, “I’ll take you to Usiga, ten K’s down the road.”
“Sure,” I agreed and signaled to the Gypsy Queen to hop on. As the transport manager drove us in his Toyota shuttle van we chatted, telling him stories of our nomadic, bartering ways.
“Do you want a photo at the equator?” he asked.
GQ and I looked at each other. “Why not?”
He pulled into the equator town of Lukaya where we took these lovely snaps:
It must have had an effect on him as he eventually took us the full 120 K’s to Masaka and even went out of his way by a further 10 K’s to drop us off on the right road heading in the right direction to Mbarara – Uganda’s second biggest town, 110 K’s away. A car had pulled up as rain-threatening clouds leered from above.
“Where are you headed?” I asked the driver who appeared quite the business type but in a sussed way.
“Kisoro,” he replied without smiling.
The off-road village of Rubuguri lay between the two larger towns of Kisoro and Kabale. Either was about 200 K’s away and perfect for us.
“Can we go with you?” I asked. “We don’t have –” before I could finish he cut me off by holding up four fingers.
“Four thousand each,” he demanded.
“Oh,” I smiled, “we don’t use money. We exchange our art for food and bed and ask drivers for lifts.”
“No money?” the driver frowned, shook his head, put the Pajero in gear and drove off. I laughed, recalling that Pajero in Spanish means ‘wanker’, explaining to GQ the conversation I just had as I wasted no time to flag down another car.
Mark and his father, Tom, took us to their home in a small, off-road village.
“We are on our way to a burial,” explained Mark, a popular local radio news anchor. “This is the house I was born in and grew up,” he motioned to the small building set deep in the bush where we had bounced through on the rough road in his father’s Toyota shuttle van.
I leaned over to the Gypsy Queen and whispered, “Have you noticed how every ride we’ve had so far has been in the same model car?”
She looked around and suddenly concurred before she was squeezed into the back with two wide-hipped mamas and Mark’s brother in the backseat while I shared the front with Mark as his father attempted not to drive us off the road. We dropped Mark’s brother in another village and continued on before we spilled out in the middle of nowhere. Thanking Mark and his family, the Gypsy Queen said,
“Even when they dropped off Mark’s brother you’d think I’d have some room? No, no, no those mamas spread out and squeezed me even more.”
I cracked up as another Toyota shuttle van pulled over.
“I’m going to Kabale,” said the driver.
“That’s great!” I exclaimed. “We are also going to Kabale.” I took a deep breath and said, “Can we go with you?”
“How much you pay?”
Shit. “We don’t use money,” I began before the driver exclaimed in a typical high-pitched, “Ah,” shook his head and drove off.
A few minutes later, Peter pulled over in his Toyota shuttle van.
“What is with all the same model rides today?” I asked GQ as I ran to the passenger-side window.
Peter was more than happy to take us to Mbarara, he’s home town. In fact, the guy was blown away by our travel stories and could barely contain himself during the drive.
“I have a tour company,” he says as he told of his humble beginnings as a poor child with 17 siblings (yup, 17). “There wasn’t enough money to send me to school so I dropped out after my primary years and worked for my brother,” he explained. “He taught me how to drive and I got a special driving permit from the police when I was 16 and became a private taxi driver. Soon, everybody in Mbarara knew me and my business grew. Now I have my own drivers and I take tourists all over the country.”
Peter was flamboyant and wasn’t shy about it. When the good-hearted soul drove us out of his way to the other side of town so that we could continue hitching, GQ mentioned that,
“He couldn’t keep his eyes off you,” she was laughing. “I don’t know if you noticed, he was sitting side ways, staring at you. He barely even noticed that I was there.”
Peter had spoken openly about having a boyfriend in Kampala. I was curious as Uganda was infamous for its homosexuality-equals-death-penalty.
“I have 250 relatives,” Peter said proudly. “And they all support me. My mother,” he paused, hand-to-heart on his chest, “she supports me so much. I love my mother.”Before he dropped us off he gave me his card. “If you guys don’t make it, just call me. I’ll arrange for you a place to stay.”
It was just past 17:00 and if we could get a ride to the next big town of Ntungamo, I figured we’d go to the police station and ask to pitch our tent.
But as soon as we left Peter’s car with the high energy he provided, dark clouds suddenly appeared . Soon enough we were surrounded by three matatus (taxi-buses) who just wouldn’t let us go.
“Where are you going? Kabale? Kisoro? Let’s go. Get in.”
Get in where? Matatus are always packed with people. Baggage is tied to the roof and the way they drive I’d rather tip-toe on a high-wire across an active volcano without a safety net than ride with these guys.
I was getting pissed off and when one of the drivers called us ‘muzungo’ (which means anyone who isn’t African in appearance in a derogatory way) I unleashed a bit of tension on him.
“Do I call you African?” I pounced angrily. “Do I call you a black man? Why do you label me? If you see a yellow dog on the streets do you say, ‘Ah, look at the yellow dog’? No, you just say, ‘Look at the dog’. Stop labeling people by colour. Ask me my name and then talk to me but don’t –” fuckin’ –“call me muzungo.”
He backed off as the Gypsy Queen maintained the peace. “Don’t get angry with these guys,” she said calmly. “They can easily turn on us.”
The sun was setting behind us, covered by the dark clouds. There were more matatus and boda-boda hasslers than rides until finally, after an hour, just as I was about to suggest we call Peter and take up his invitation to crash at his place, a military Landcruiser flatbed pulled over.
Two soldiers sat in the front with big smiles and offered to take us to Ntungamo. The Gypsy Queen and I sat in the open back of the pickup and covered ourselves with a blanket as we sped the 70 K’s in darkness, a cold wind whipping about us.
We arrived slightly cold and drove past a crowd that seemed to be celebrating outside of a political office.
“Do you know where the police station is?” I asked our driver.
He shook his head, bid us good luck and drove off.
“At least it wasn’t a Toyota shuttle van,” I shrugged.
The Gypsy Queen looked at me. “Where are we spending the night?”
“Let’s find the police station,” I suggested. I caught sight of a police car and we moseyed on over. “Hi,” I grinned. “Jebaleko,” I added in Luganda.
The cops lit up at hearing me speak their language and began to direct us to the station. “It is the safest place for you to put your tent,” they assured.
Just as we were about to hike up another officer appeared, got the rundown from the driver and said to us, “Get in, we’ll take you.”