Sunday, September 16, 2012

Hard at work in Arua, West Nile, and enjoying it

'Give me camera! ... Give me camera! ... Give me camera! ...'

These words, delivered staccato with accompanying outstretched hand, did not bode well for our first visit to West Nile. Nor did they come from an importunate child as an alternative to 'I am hungry' or, in the backpacker resorts of Lake Bunyoni and the Nile rapids, 'Give me sweetie'.

No, these words came from a tall well-armed soldier reaching inside our car to snatch my precious camera. We held it as far away from him as we could.

'Look!' we said, 'We're deleting them. Look - one gone, another gone....all gone. Now can we go?'

The answer, it seemed, was no. Worse, give me camera appeared to be the only English words in his vocabulary, as the subsequent torrent of Lugbwara seemed to indicate. It is unusual for police and soldiers not to speak at least some English, the official language of Uganda. After all, English-speakers are likely to be their most lucrative source of bribes.

I had, of course, done something quite stupid. I had taken pictures of fishermen throwing their nets on the Albert Nile at Pakwach, the main crossing, about 25 kilometres from where the river flows out of Lake Albert. Naturally, there was no sign to indicate that photography was not allowed, but neither is there at the Karuma Falls to the east on the Victoria Nile where innocent visitors are constantly harassed  by the soldiers lounging on the bridge. My guess is that the lack of a sign is deliberate - all the better to catch you out. We heard the words 60,000 shillings (£15) in the middle of the torrent. In the past, we have taken such words as a signal to start negotiating. I reckoned we could get the bribe down to 40 or even 30k. After two years here, however, Stuart has now had enough of such cultural practices.

'No, no, no! That is corruption!' he said. 'We work for the Ministry and we will tell them.' (A slight exaggeration and much good it would have done anyway. Our Ministry, apparently, comes only slightly lower than the police and armed forces in the corruption indices.)

I was stunned at my husband's seeming recklessness. I held my camera even more tightly.

Fortunately for us, the soldier's junior colleague then arrived, fluent in English and amused by what was going on. 'Al Shabbab,' he said. Indeed, despite having taken imaginary explosives in and out of Kampala supermarkets with impunity, it seemed that we were a clear threat to security here. Mind you, we were near the border with DR Congo. We heard the words 60,000 shillings repeated. Our new friend laughed. We grovelled and apologised abjectly for our stupidity - well, I did, Stuart wasn't playing ball - and the junior soldier waved us on.

We wound the windows up and proceeded, breathing multiple sighs of relief.

Not so fast! A roadblock, a real one, a few yards further on. The official black-and-white barricade was firmly down across the road. Oh no, I thought. The military have had second thoughts.

No, that wasn't it at all. Our car was immediately surrounded by a dozen women waving baskets of ground nuts and simsim (sesame) biscuits. It seemed that purchasing several such items was compulsory. Shs500 (12p) for each packet would do it. Alas, we had nothing less than a Shs5,000 note, but our smiling ambushers were fair. We left with a glove box packed with snacks.

That was Pakwach. And that was the only problematic part of a very enjoyable visit to Arua.

To get to West Nile, you turn west just beyond Karuma Falls along an excellent, European-built road, one of the best we have been on. Interesting, the differences in road quality across the country - see what I have to say about the road to Gulu in my next post. The road to Arua, capital of West Nile, skirts the northern edge of Murchison Falls National Park - indeed, passes through it - although we saw nothing more exciting than a patas monkey. It was along this road in south-western Acholiland that many of the camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) were established during the northern insurgency. Unsurprisingly, game from the park sometimes formed an illegal addition to the diet of the malnourished inhabitants of the camps.

The first section of road from where you turn off the Gulu road is through flat grassland dotted with acacia and gum trees. As we got nearer to the Nile (and Pakwach of ill repute) we saw more and more palm trees, silhouetted against the afternoon sky. We had managed to take a couple of photos of the Nile from a distance, before the attempted hijack of my camera. You can see the river meandering along the valley and quite different from the wild wet-season rapids we had observed at Karuma.

We passed compounds of grass-thatched houses.

As usual, people lived their lives out in the open, here collecting water from the borehole (I have tried and failed to lift a jerrycan of water off the ground, let alone onto my head) ...

... and washing clothes in the nearest water source.

As we got nearer to Arua itself, we passed more and more travellers, mostly on foot but increasingly on bicycles, the nearer we got to the town. In central Uganda, boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) are, with matatus (minibuses), the most common form of transport. Here in Arua, bodas were also common, but usually push bikes, rather than motorised.  

The landscape became hillier, with volcanic cones dotted around. It was very very green, far greener and more wooded that I had expected. I had assumed that it would be like Gulu and the eastern side of the Nile (though, to be fair, so much of the Gulu area had been deforested during the conflict that it is difficult for a new arrival to tell what it must once have looked like).

As you can see, the road was virtually empty of motorised traffic, apart from a few crazily overloaded vans, lorries and bodas.

Arua itself is a pleasant town, only 14 kilometres from the Congolese border. It reminded me of Soroti, the same broad streets in the centre of town - here pot-holed and crowded with cycle traffic - and dilapidated colonial houses in 'senior quarters'.

The Bradt Guide insists that Arua is the friendliest town in Uganda and we found nothing to disprove that theory. On the other hand, West Nile was the birthplace of Idi Amin. (And much has been the suffering of its people on account of this, following the various changes in regime since then.) West Nile has suffered its fair share of conflict and has also taken in many internally displaced people from other parts of northern Uganda. It continues to welcome refugees from Congo to the west and South Sudan to the north as conflicts flare up on its borders. It also provides markets and services such as schooling to these communities.

Relatively isolated from the rest of Uganda and separated from it by the Albert Nile on its way to Sudan, West Nile has few of the services which central Uganda takes for granted. It is not even on the national grid. Last Friday, President Museveni switched on the power supply from the new Nyagak hydro power dam part-funded by the German government and the Aga Khan Foundation at a cost of Shs27 billion (Sunday Monitor 16/09/2012): another example of the support Uganda receives from the rest of the world. We could see brand new electricity power lines lining the main road. Currently only 5,000 people out of West Nile's population of 2.3 million have been connected, according to the Monitor. Most people will not be able to afford the connection fee. A single pole costs Shs1.5 million (£368, a lot of money). Power will be supplied for four hours each day.

We guessed something was in the offing on our way back from West Nile last Thursday, when we encountered the President's motorcade driving at ridiculous speeds right down the middle of the road: trucks bristling with evil-looking military police in full armour, machine guns at the ready; his private ambulance; his private toilets loaded onto pick ups; and lots of Land Cruisers with hangers on. One's first warning of a Presidential journey is an advance truck hooting wildly and lights flashing, also driven at ridiculous speeds down the middle of the road, with military personnel shouting and gesticulating to drivers to get out of the way or they'll be mown down.

So much for the President. However, why were we in Arua?

We were making a brief visit to help provide training for local government inspectors from all over the area. How we wished we had made it this far north before! We had met up with our colleagues the evening before at the very pleasant White Castle Hotel on the outskirts of the town.

There we had finalised the programme and agreed to meet at 8.30am at Arua Public School, a government-aided primary school, near the main street which was the venue for the next day's meeting. Well, we were there by 8.30 am. The rest of the day - and the participants - followed a more Ugandan approach to timekeeping.

As we waited for others to arrive, we spent a pleasant hour chatting to the deputy headteacher who impressed us by her homemade posters on what makes a 'good school'. In the meantime, the cleaners swept the main hall, removing a stray goat. The school looked pretty well organised.

Unlike the training.... Ten o'clock came and went. One or two inspectors appeared. (My Scottish friend Jane would be going ballistic, I thought....) At half past ten, our colleagues appeared. Change of venue. So we all piled into the Land Cruiser and made for the School for Nurses and Midwives, a far better location for our training, it appeared, and, certainly a much more modern building. We sat in the Acting Principal's Office making polite conversation, twitching slightly with impatience as only bazungu do. Everybody else was quite unconcerned as minutes and hours slipped away.

Nevertheless, there was some magic around. A Powerpoint projector appeared, much to my delight, supported by an intermittent electricity supply. On my laptop I had an all-singing-all-dancing-presentation: infinitely preferable to screeds of flipchart paper. I have to say it was a great success - such wizardry had never been seen in West Nile training sessions before, it seems. I thought how humdrum my erstwhile colleagues in Scotland would have thought it! And, wonderful to behold, the inspectors from across West Nile started trickling in. Some had ridden their motorbikes, some had come by matatu and some on the back of a boda.

At 11.30 the District Education Officer (DEO) appeared in the room, straight off the overnight bus from Kampala, to kick the process off. And he couldn't have done it better. Stuart and I were going to talk about the centrality of children and their learning in the education process and about the need for new forms of inspection to focus on their needs. We strongly believe that in a poor country - indeed, in any country - inspection has to make real differences to children's learning, safety, happiness and achievements if it is to have any value at all. It is not a process of ticking off checklists as so often happens here (seen/not seen - anathema!). And what did the DEO say? Here is the gist.
  • Inspection is at a crossroads.
  • It must focus on impact not just numbers.
  • Government-aided schools are inspected more frequently but perform worse than private schools.
  • Inspection must respond to and involve stakeholders.
  • Inspectors in rural areas must generate their own data and evidence rather than always relying on 'Kampala' to do this, and feed the centre rather than always the other way round.
He left us with two questions: firstly, How do inspectors bring about impact?, and the key question in response to the submission of overly process/input-based evidence, So what?. Our former colleague HM Chief Inspector Ian Gamble is clearly alive and kicking, and living in West Nile.
Well, this was fantastic preparation for what we had to say. The next two days went like a dream. We talked, discussed, shared experiences and planned what to do next. Some of the performance data from West Nile - Primary Leaving Examination results, drop out and attendance - are at the extreme end of desperate. In a country where only 25% of Primary 1 children stay on till P7 (compared with 82% in Tanzania and 83% in Kenya), the completion rate (to P7) in some areas of West Nile is as low as 3%.

Desperate the participants were not, however. Despite all the challenges - geographical, social and economic - some of the inspectors were making real efforts to meet the needs of their schools and to reduce teacher and pupil absenteeism and overall drop out. We talked about the appropriateness of the current curriculum and examination system in meeting the needs of all learners. (Answer: not much.) We discussed the importance of young children learning through their local language. (A policy which is quite unpopular with parents, who want their children to 'get on'. To be fair, there are also lots of issues relating to resourcing and teachers' skills.) At the end we were exhausted but have rarely felt so privileged in sharing experiences with colleagues who have been on a much harder end of the education system than we have ever been.

One last happy memory.

One thing I had wanted to bring back from Arua, was a vitenge, one of the wonderful block-printed lengths of cloth which Congolese women carry across the border every day to the market in Arua. Our new friends pre-empted our shopping expedition, however. At the end of our two days we were presented with two superb lengths of fabric one in deep red and one in blue.

What were the inspectors doing thanking us? We could only thank them, and not just for our new garments.

Now it was time to go to Gulu to take part in a similarly successful training session (thanks to our colleagues again, rather than to us!). To reach Gulu we had to retrace our tracks southwards to the Karuma Falls and then turn north again.

As we left Arua, we met people flocking in with their goods to sell.

The usual idiosyncratic approaches were taken to transport, here the customary overloaded pickup...

... a pedlar on his bike...

... and even a camel.

And the landscape was as lovely as the day we came.

We will never forget our visit to West Nile.


  1. This has been a heart warming story for me, as I came across it, for the first
    time, since it was posted back in 2012. Knowing West Nile and Arua very well,
    but having not been there, for the past 30 years, your travel accounts and work
    experiences, seemed like I too was travelling along with, but somewhere inn the clouds.
    I am an Artist and a free lance Photographer, specializing in the natural world around us and obviously wildlife, for that mater. I have enjoyed a very generous doze of pictures of the beautiful scenery of landscapes and my kinswomen and men and children.
    A good 30 years have slipped by, but a lot of Arua Town, especially some of the streets and older buildings have not received any fresh touch of a skilled
    human hand, either in a new tarmac, or a beautiful new paint, since I last was there in person. Oh my!
    It was most fascinating and indeed amusing for me to see a picture of a camel, perhaps my first such camel on the ground, in West Nile. How really
    Above all, it is good to know that the people of West Nile are still wonderful and most welcoming, as ever, roads are improving,it is still business as usual and that there are still lots of greenery and lots of trees growing.
    Now, it is my turn to go, see and enjoy it myself.

    Thank you, for the beautiful story, but I do mind the petty corruption, the very fact that I have loads of camera gear and I must go with it, when I hit the road, for West Nile, come 2014.
    A quick NOTE: Since you won't forget your visit to the West Nile sub-region,
    I would suggest and strongly recommend that you organize a cultural and bird watching and sports fishing tour, of this beautiful part of Uganda and meet more local communities, as charming as they are, in their own rights.
    Make sure to have a few family and friends, to tag along, to make it even more fun and more memorable. Did you visit the hot springs?


    1. Dear Tabbua, I really appreciate your kind sentiments. I am very pleased that you enjoyed this post. I would love to go back to Arua! Elisabeth

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