thoughts from the journey: kampala to lira to kotido

On Monday, June 13th, I left Kampala for the much-anticipated journey to Kotido with Thera and our housemate. The journey itself was to be spread over two days, for while the first leg of the journey was over paved roads, the second would require four-wheel masterful driving over four hours’ worth of bumpy, hole-filled dirt road through the mountains of Abim.

After having spent the better part of two weeks playing musical houses for places to stay whilst exploring all that the capital held for us, I think we all were eager to depart and go home. As I’ve been hearing about the wild beauty and complete different-ness that is the Karamoja district (where Kotido is) since February, I was completely ready to finally see it for my own eyes.

But I was to wait a little longer.

The journey to Lira was long; we tried, for a time, to listen to my specially-cooked-up-revamped-Road trip-Mix on some very old and well-used iPod speakers. Alas, that ended all too soon. So I took entirely too much video and tried, for a spell, to play the Alphabet Game. As there really only four designs for the billboards to Lira that had a rather brief jaunt as well.

So I drank in the Ugandan countryside- which, dear reader, was certainly enough. There were fields upon fields of sunflowers, their vibrant yellowness contrasting with the expanseless blue of the sky, painted with rolling white clouds. There were painted-on signs above shops for Celltell and MTN in hues of red and red and red and blue. And all else was that lush green you read so much about in the Nat Geos and Out of Africas dotting our bookshelves.

But most important was the crossing of the Nile. Before we crossed, Thera turned to me and said, “You’re going to want to look.”

I wish I could show you photographs, because the Nile is everything one might dream; raging, voracious, crashing, unnerving, and majestic. Alas, the bridge that crosses the Nile is a crucial security point- it is the lifeline to the North. Thus, no photography is allowed.

But allow me to paint for you: the water is so blue it almost black in some places, but where is spews over rocks (of which there are many) you can see the greenish shade to the water. Fringed along every wave are frothy white bubbles; the torrential turning and twisting of the current seems as though with one pull one might drown. The river is wide, deep, old, and worth the tales woven for it. As a marker for the boundary between Northern and Southern Uganda, it stands to reason it too is a physical manifestation of a colliding space. A crash between a region recovering from war and one not; the barrier and bridge between tribes, between prejudices and curiosities. It is to be feared and loved.

As in all things, being reminded of the collisionary vessel in which I now abide was necessary.

When we arrived in Lira night was falling, so the four of us (Elizabeth, Thera, housemate, and I) collapsed on the singular bed and ordered sandwiches to dine. I had my first hot shower in two weeks- JUBILANTLY, I might fill in- and scarfed down the salami wonderland that was my dinner. Lira was looking to be pretty good.

Until it was time for sleep.

With three in a bed and one on the floor, it was promising already to be mildly uncomfortable. When the mosquito net proved to be abrim in gaps in the netting, the night was shaping up to be hellacious.

Now, allow me to go further back.

This is my third time to the Continent. Everywhere I have been, I have used my mosquito net because it is an immense privilege to have one. I have never felt, however, that I needed it where I was in Ghana or Rwanda or even Uganda. But in Lira? By Jove, was that net necessary. And yet it was my first time with a malfunctioning net. Of all the gin joints in all the world.

Thus, we four, slathered in deet, tried to sleep despite the persistent, grinding whir of the bloody insects. It hardly worked. I, per what seems to be usual, seemed to bear the brunt of the bites. I’ve counted eighty on my legs alone; my arms are even worse. All that was warm and fuzzy about Lira faded into miserable heat and horrible itching.

By dawn I hated Lira and all the buzzing creatures in it.

After a morning dash of tea and grocery shopping, we dropped Elizabeth off and the three of us began our sojourn to Kotido. I confess I was not in the brightest of spirits; my leg is still healing (it is now the size of two half-dollars rather than my palm) and was in blistering pain, everywhere itched from the blasted mosquitoes, I had hardly slept, and was facing the second and more arduous leg of our journey. The silver lining was that I was not driving, but still, I kept quiet and internally pouted.

Until we, after driving through much of the glorious and wild and untamed bush, came to Abim. Already my spirits were lifting from the lustrous and incredible Earth around us- but there is no place in the world like the mountains of Abim. It was truly like arriving in Shangri-La, or heaven, or some untamed and uncharted Middle Earth of the tropics. Jutting out of the orange earth are, what the Karamajong refer to, as “hills.” These “hills” put Appalachia to shame; their rolling and monstrous peaks towered far above, their unoccupied sides dotted with trees and greenery. Against the endless sky even they seemed like the shoulders and feet and faces of slumbering giants.

i took this on the road through abim

One such mountain, called Rwot, captivated my attention even before Kelly explained to me its significance. The shape was distinctive from the other, multi-peaked mounds around us; it looked somewhat bald, the trees stopping mid-way up to give way to an enormous rock face protruding up, ascending to the clouds. From afar it was impressive; cast under its shadow, it was worthy of reverence.

Which is why, when Kelly explained to me its name and history, I wanted to make pilgrimage to it. Rwot means “chief” or “king” in the local tongue; the mountain is dutifully treated as such. Believed to posses magical qualities, all animals hunted from its ground will reassemble their stripped parts in the night so as to return to the King. No ambitious rock climber has ever successfully scaled its solid rock peak; tools have broken, ropes snapped, souls lost to the mountain. It is said that once a helicopter landed on its top, and when the people departed, the helicopter crashed. Small gods are believed to live in its hidden cave, deities whom the Elders of the surrounding villages visit once a year for wisdom and stories surrounding the mighty Rwot. Forever a lover of fantasy and a good story, I was completely enthralled by the tales woven around this massive piece of earth.

Rwot, from a distance in the car

As we drove past, I thanked Rwot for the safe passage and made mental notes to ask for more stories surrounding the mountain from people in Kotido. Call me a spook or gullible fool, but there was a total aura around the rock- it was humbling and scary and terribly intriguing. But we drove past, onward and northward to Kotido. After passing through more “hills” we arrived in the vast plains of Karamoja. While Abim is technically in the Karamoja district, it looked nothing like the land where I now sit, typing this. Equally marvel-worthy, equally beautiful is Kotido.

The land, like the sky, seems to roll out in all directions forever. It was like driving onto another planet; resilient land and resourceful inhabitants. I truly cannot wait to explore it fully, to share in and deepen relationships with the Karamojong and begin the real work.

Yet, as the journey was arduous (to put it mildly) over miles upon miles of rocky, unpaved roads, we have taken today to do laundry and crafts and unpack. I’m settling into my corner of the living room- assuredly, when the 30 Day Photo Challenge recommences in full on Ugandan style, you shall have the full tour. But for now I must muse on Rwot and its inexplicable wonder…and get to folding clothes. Til then!

—                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         current jam: “we won’t run” sarah blasco

best thing in my life right now: well, as you are about to discover below…I started Tolstoy! Not by much, but still. A beginning is a beginning, no matter how small.

pages read in war & peace:TWO! and now to bed…