Africa Guide
Guide to Africa

Uganda/DR Congo : Red Earth Bricks and Sticks

It was a spotted hyena. His lolling run had him lopsided and a paw lifted. His mouth hung open, his tongue out, a melting pink ice-block dripping spit.
What do your headlights discover in your hometown at 4.45am?


In Kenya we pee in the fleshy green tea fields beside the road, over the metal farm gate, finding unoccupied rows and relieving ourselves where the workers will walk in their sandaled feet. The urine will stink in the damp hot soil. It's HOT and getting back on the truck the sun has burnt my seat, burns my bottom.

In our tent on the shores of Lake Victoria we lie under our blue mosquito net. We are listening for the hippos whose tracks we found, bigger then Michelle's hand. Pressed deep into tiny stoned sand, they look like prints of the mythical yeti in the snow at Cardrona. It seems make-believe, our hands in hippo prints in Kampala, Uganda.

The colours of Uganda are what a hairdresser would call Autumn colours. They are a rich warm brown, mud brown. They are ochre and red dirt and wheatgrass rainforest green. Heavy wet skies accentuate their vibrancy. The colours are lickable.

Uganda, Uganda. Gone are the sharp cutting cheekbones of the long-legged Kenyan boys. Their faces are broad now, their heads softly round and their skin lighter.

The kids are jumping and waving and smiling up to our high windows. There are red bricks drying in stacks beside smoking kilns in the ground, their wooden cases, which shape them, are open to the sun, boxes with two brick-sized holes and a line separating them through the middle. In Uganda highlighter pink-shirted boys ride taxi bikes. The punter sits on a tied down cushion over the back wheel, hands nonchalantly clasped around the rider's waist, legs slung to one side, held out from the spokes.

Uganda Highlands
Uganda Highlands

In the red earth school yards the children wear identical uniforms of one colour. There are purple and pink and green children, their uniforms spotless and hair shaved or braided. The intense lush bush with its millions of species of trees is thick and hot and looks like Asia, not Africa. The rice paddies are flooded and lie below the level of the road. We sit high above them in our Overland truck. Women bend from their waists, legs straight, the babies on their backs, tied in a kanga, tipping forward towards the water. They work with one hand, the other holding the knotted cloth at their front. The dark grassy water is above their ankles and the hems of their dresses are see-through and heavy, sopping.

In Kenya most of the children wore shoes. Our driver, Bernard, says a Kenyan mother would never have her child go to school without shoes. They are a symbol of pride. The children of Uganda don't seem to place such importance on footwear and pink soles dance beneath brown limbs in the street. Ugandan houses are made from red earth bricks and sticks make fences where women sit with sand-covered babies. Corn lies drying on spread out kangas. The babies are tied in shawls, knotted between the mother's breasts. Walking women have their babies on their backs and long piles of cloth-tied sticks on their heads.

Another toilet stop and you see white bums amongst the corn. Fertiliser for free.

Getting towards Democratic Republic of Congo, the roads are long crazy sliding rivers of red dust. Driving beside intensive crop-farming hills people watch us, faces a mixture of hostility and glee.

In a campground barriered by bricks, coiled barbed wire and broken glass, the mist settles soaking and heavy. The shower is at the end of the driveway, in a shed with no lock. We pass a shared torch over the dividing barrier when we need to find our shampoo or locate the tap. The person in the right-hand shower controls the temperature. The fire in the oil drum heats the water that scolds us and throws bright orange light into a clouded monochrome night. You can hear the monkeys and the bats shrieking and the lightening is closer than it was.

Waiting for dinner, I sit with a friend under a porch light on plastic chairs and we write our diaries in a spotlight in the dark. Our driver comes over and introduces himself, taking our hand in his big calloused paw. He's wearing an over-sized red polar fleece with a blue work beanie over his newly formed dreads. Leaning against the wooden pole hoisting up the tin roof and our illuminating light, he drinks his beer and answers our questions with patience and practice. Tonight we sit in circles on stools and drink Coke, still meeting each other.

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