Whilst the information highways that we have available at our fingertips today are taken for granted, growing up in Britain through the 1970’s with 3 channels of T.V. to us seemed like cutting edge. However, the 6 or 10 O’clock news (whether it was BBC or ITV) has been a scheduling feature that has transcended time and technology with world leaders playing the roles of hero’s and villains in much the same way then as they do now.
During the 1970’s though it seemed that one African leader was a constant feature on our scenes. Idi Amin was a larger than life dictator who liked the limelight. An army officer with a reputation for brutality Amin seized power in 1971 when the then elected president Milton Obote was out of the country attending Commonwealth Heads of Government conference.
In 1972 Amin ordered the expulsion of 65,000 Asians from the country with the threat that those remaining would be thrown into concentration camps run by the Ugandan army. As the ‘70’s progressed Amin’s behaviour became more erratic with his statements to the press becoming more and more bizarre, sadly his brutality did not abate and in the eight years he was in power it’s believed that between 300,000-500,000 Ugandans lost their lives under his direction.
Idi Amin’s reign of terror came to an end in 1979 when he had to flee into exile (eventually to Saudi Arabia) after his forces were on the losing end of a war that Amin had started by invading Uganda’s southern neighbour Tanzania, many former Ugandan soldiers fought with Tanzania to bring Amin down.
So three words I could link to Uganda from the 1970’s were Amin, Kampala and Entebbe. Amin the dictator, Kampala the capital and Entebbe the airport that featured in a hijacking and a daring rescue by Israeli special-forces in 1976.
I would love to be able to say that the removal of Amin brought an end to the systemic violence in Uganda but sadly no. A number of different groups over the years have fought armed campaigns against the government.
One of the most brutal groups has been the Lords Resistance Army, who’s rebellion started in the Northern Uganda in 1987. It is estimated that this group has been responsible for the abduction of 30,000 children from northern Uganda/Southern Sudan region. The abducted children were often initiated into this ‘army’ by being forced to murder a parent, family member or another abducted child, many girls were raped and forced to become ‘wives’ to the fighters. The level of brutality this group displayed seemed to know no bounds.
Joseph Kony (the groups leader) always seemed to be one step ahead of Government campaigns against him, U.S. Special Forces became involved but still proved elusive, Kony was using high levels of witchcraft that enabled him to go undetected.
Various churches unified across Uganda started to pray that God’s plan for Uganda would come to pass particularly in the ravaged north of the country. Slowly but surely Kony’s power was challenged and the Government started to have more and more success against his forces with peace slowly but surely returning to these regions.
During this time the Government took the opportunity not only to disarm these fighters but also remove the weapons being held by people in Karamoja(though some weapons were buried). This North Western part of Uganda is occupied by a tribe called the Karamajong, who have a reputation throughout Uganda for violence and cattle rustling and as a people they are viewed as some of the lowliest in Uganda’s tribal system.
Uganda is a nation with over 40 different languages and different tribes are dominant in certain areas of the country with each tribe having it’s own language and culture. Tribal intermarriage is frowned upon and just because two tribal regions are adjacent it doesn’t mean that their languages will be compatible. Lugandan and English are the main national languages spoken though Swahili is becoming slowly more common.
In essence it is like each of the English counties having their own culture and language.
Having travelled extensively this was my first trip to Africa and I wondered how it would compare with other parts of the world I had visited such as Malaysia or India.
I was part of a team of four – Janice Rodgers, Andrew Baddeley, Tilly West and myself. Our African contact was to be a local Pastor Philip Lotimong, Philip was born in Karamoja but left the region in aged two with his mother after a famine hit the region. Philip has an amazing testimony and it is by the grace of God that he is still alive and able to do God’s work, Andrew and Janice both know Philip well having worked with him in Africa before.
Tilly, with a piece of inspired forward thinking had collected baby clothes and small toys from local mum’s who attended the church’s Mother and Toddler group ‘Little Monkeys’ with a view of giving them out as gifts to needy mums in Africa. This subsequently meant that Tilly showed up with twice as much luggage as anybody else, a problem that was easily solved as Andrew and I were travelling lighter than our two bag luggage allowance.
Because Tilly and I booked our tickets later than Andrew and Janice our flight arrangements (although starting together) took different routes. The four of us flew to Amsterdam with Andrew and Janice then flying direct to Entebbe.
Tilly and I flew to Nairobi in Kenya where we had a 9hr layover at Nairobi’s new international airport. It quickly became clear on our arrival that pretty much our only option was to spend the night sleeping on the terminal floor, along with quite a number of other people, sleep was ‘fitful’ to say the least.
The next leg of our journey was a Kenyan Airways flight to Entebbe that left at 7am and we arrived 10mins early at 8.10am. Entebbe Airport is situated on the shores of Lake Victoria and in contrast to the brand new terminal of Nairobi, Entebbe looked like an airport from the 1960’s or 70’s.
We were clearly the first commercial flight in of the day, though parked up on the aircraft apron were a number of white transport aircraft emblazoned with U.N. insignia, clearly helping with the famine crisis in Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda.
Ugandan passport control required Tilly and I to pay $50 U.S. each for a visa. When using U.S. dollars to pay for anything in Africa it is customary for the notes to be passed through the highest level of scrutiny, ‘crisp as can be’ with no tares, substandard notes (in the receiver’s view) will be handed back to you. I had also encountered this in South America.
Tilly and I fortunately gained our visas without incident passed through the terminal very quickly and out into the Ugandan sunshine and a scrum of taxi drivers all touting for business. After about 30mins Philip and Andrew arrived to pick us up and took us to the hotel where they had spent the night, it was good to have a shower and a meal and catch up with Janice again.
Once we had packed the van we left the hotel at Entebbe around lunchtime to head for Mbale, however we had to return to the hotel after about an hours travelling as Janice had left her passport with the check-in staff at the hotel. Fortunately we were still on the Entebbe side of Kampala, an eagle-eyed Tilly had spotted a shopping an opportunity so we dropped her off and arranged to pick her up after we had rescued Janice’s passport.
So after our detour and Tilly’s shopping trip we eventually got on the road again only encounter the chaos of Kampala traffic. It seemed like there was every type of vehicle, in various states of repair, swarming around us from every possible direction, Minibuses filled to the brim with passengers and goods, motorcycle riders weaving in and out of the traffic overloaded with pillion riders and cargo, progress was a crawl.
If you study a map of Uganda it’s easy to see one of the major causes of the problem as all roads out into the country pass through Kampala.
On the way out of Kampala I sat in the front of the minibus and remarked to Philip that the clouds in front of us looked liked rain clouds, Philip didn’t think so as it had not rained in this region of Uganda for about 2-3months but about 20mins later it started raining. This was to be a feature of the early part of our trip, which meant that the days were still warm but generally a lot cooler than they could have been.
We were heading to North West Uganda, eventually to Namalu but first to Mbale via Jinja. As we travelled out of Kampala the amount of traffic became less but the quality of the road surfaces started to become a problem and this was to be a feature of our trip from now on and often restricted our speed to no more than 20-30mph.
At Jinja we took a break, a chance to grab something to eat and stretch our legs though we didn’t want to stop long as we still had quite a long way to travel and we wanted to avoid travelling at night.
Driving out of Jinja we crossed over the River Nile and headed out on probably the trickiest part of our journey so far the Jinja – Mbale road, was undergoing road works and thus made our progress even slower than before. Night fell with about an hours travel left to Mbale, with no street lighting the potholes and the sometimes poorly lit on coming traffic needed to be negotiated with even more care.
Eventually we reached our destination, The Shine On Hotel in Mbale, a welcome chance to have a shower and get something to eat. It had been a full 8hrs since we left Entebbe and after dumping our luggage we all headed to the local Indian to enjoy a curry and sitting on a seat that didn’t rattle your bones.
When the comforts of home are taken away you realise very quickly that you become grateful for the simplest of things. Each of our rooms had a shower, a two-channel television, a fan and a double bed with a mosquito net.
The next morning we had arranged that Janice and Tilly would go to Philip’s church whilst Andrew and I would go and visit the church that meet at ‘Child of Hope’.
‘Child of Hope’ is an organisation that is based in the ‘slum’ area of Namatala where survivors from years of strife in the north, mostly people from the formerly opposing Karamajong and Tesso tribes struggle to make ends meet.
Starting with a free preschool in 2008, C of H is now a three-storey building offering education opportunities to nearly 500 children. Each child get’s free health checks and regular meals and Child of Hope now are able to offer social care, economic guidance and spiritual guidance. It has been a remarkable blessing in a really deprived area on the outskirts of Mbale.
Andrew and I spoke at two services while we were there and prayed for many people. Later Janice came and joined us, Tilly opted to stay with the children at Philip’s church but later she joined us as well. The last time Andrew was at ‘Child of Hope’ they had only had the bottom floor of the school built so it was great to see the progress Moses and his team have made.
Once we had finish we headed for something to eat and some reliable wifi, Philip told us about a new restaurant called Endiro that was a short walk from our hotel. Set out like a western coffee shop and serving great coffee, shakes and food, Endiro quickly became our second home after the hotel.
On our first visit there however our conversation quickly became drowned out by torrential rain pounding on the corrugated tin roof, this was a little disturbing as in the morning we heading into Karamoja on un-tarmac-ed roads.
Whilst having breakfast at Endiro’s the next morning an American lady approached us and said “ I think your going to be staying at our house.” This was Martha (who was with her son Bobby) and we were!
Martha and her husband had been missionary’s in Karamoja for 17 years and had lived in the region through some of the troubles and violence that I had previously mentioned and told us how it used to be usual to need two armed guards to accompany them on the journey we were about to do. Martha and Bobby were staying in Mbale and we weren’t sure if our paths would cross again so we took a picture together and headed off into Mbale to get some supplies for our trip, Tilly wanted some Mangos!
The journey out to Karamoja was to take us between 3 to 5hrs depending on road conditions, traffic and weather. As we moved out of Mbale we were quickly onto dirt roads and about a couple of hours into our journey we started to notice that the rain clouds were gathering ahead of us and then the storm broke, unleashing some of the most torrential rain I’ve ever seen. With visibility lost our progress was reduced to a careful crawl.
Eventually the storm passed though the sodden road was still treacherous and then it happened! We slid off the side of the road and got stuck!
Fortunately it had stopped raining but there was only one thing for all of us to do and that was to get out and push. With some gentle persuasion we got the van moving again though we seemed to have caused a bit of amusement with the locals as they passed us on the top of trucks and four wheel drives, although muddy we were all able to laugh about it.
As the rain cleared and the sun came out the beauty of the African scenery became clear, to our left and right we had classic African bush, long grasses and short stubby trees and mountains rising out of the plain in front of us.
Upon our arrival in Namalu we were met on the edge of town by a terrific welcome, the pastors, worship group singers and dancers who proceeded to release a huge welcoming banner across the road and then marched down the ‘high street’ of Namalu praising and worshiping Christ. As we walked with them into town loads of children started walking with us, a lot of children in this area of Uganda don’t get to go to school so we were joined by all ages. Families often have multiple children often with the older children given the responsibility of looking after their younger siblings, it wasn’t unusual to see 5 or 6 year olds carrying infants with no parent to be seen.
Upon reaching the church we met a few of the local pastors but we didn’t stay long as we still had some more travelling to do. As we headed for our accommodation it started to get dark eventually we turned into a compound with a number of houses. Often houses in Uganda will have a high perimeter fence with barbed wire for security. We were blessed to be able be staying here, 3 families live on site and we were welcomed to dinner by David and Rochelle and their 3 children, this was a real blessing after such a long journey.
The next morning we arrived at the church and the worship was in full swing, it was a sight and sound to behold and something we all enjoyed. The Karamajong are known for the jumping and they would often spontaneously jump together during the worship, the women also release a high pitch holler they often did this as a thank you. Each church window was a picture with lots of smiling children looking in curious to see what we were up to.
Sacred Flame (the charity we were working with) had raised enough money that anyone attending the conference had food to eat and somewhere to sleep.
Philip had done a magnificent work in drawing the pastors of this region together some had walked for 60klm to be with us whilst others had trekked down out of remote mountain villages.
Andrew, Janice and I spoke on the first day whilst was Tilly being followed around by a growing number of children. Tilly also took to handing out the baby clothes and toys that she had collected and it was a delight to watch the faces of the children and ladies as they were given these gifts, some having never received a gift of any kind.
In the afternoon we all headed into town for a crusade that had been organised in Namulu’s market place. There was a throng of people dancing and singing in the market place when we arrived with many more looking on. After a time of worship Philip and Janice spoke and four people gave their lives to Christ. After about an hour we headed back to where we were staying as the families in the compound had invited us for dinner.
The order of the second day was much like the first but this time we were able to spend more time at the crusade in the market place. Again it was packed Janice spoke and 11 people came forward to give their hearts to Jesus. Janice had also made an appeal for anyone to come forward who needed healing but specifically for blindness, a number of people came forward. One lady had an eye damaged when another lady had attacked her and stabbed something into her eye. As Janice was praying for this lady a huge smile broke across her face and she went on to tell the crowd how Jesus had just healed her. Other people received healings as well. Praise God.
Throughout the couple of days of the conference Tilly gave out the toys and baby clothes she had collected particularly to pregnant Mommas. (An African term)
The church youth group had raised money for a well to be built in Philip’s village but there was some money left over and we were able to buy 10 goats that we were able to give away to 10 families. (20 & 21)
The conference was a major success with great times of worship, teaching and prayer and it was a privilege to be amongst these amazing men and women. It had also rained a number of times since we had been there and we watched the trees on the savannah in front of us turn from shrivelled brown to a vibrant green.
On our last morning Philip took us to a couple of the local grass local hut villages. In these villages the women build the houses whilst the men heard the cattle looking for fresh pasture. Families might have animal skins to sleep on but often sleep on the bare floor, some families also sleep in the huts above their animals and with no running water or electricity the homes seemed to us like something out of the stone-age.
Uganda is a very fertile land and many of these villagers pretty much grow their own food everything from bananas to cabbages. (22, 23,24)
Around about midday we set off on the long, bumpy road back to Mbale. We made reasonably good progress so Philip suggested we take a detour up into the mountains to see a waterfall called Sipi Falls. As we climbed we also took the opportunity to stop and admire the vastness of the plain laid out behind us, it stretched as far as the eye could see. The villagers in this part of Uganda seemed wealthier than in Karamoja, there were more houses and they were well kept.
Along the route were huts offering tourist guides to the falls, this is a chance for the locals to earn some extra cash but it can get a little competitive. Our first guide was a young lad who looked like he was in his school uniform and he took us to a spot where we had to leave the van behind and walk. At this point another ‘guide’ pulled up on a motorbike claiming he was an official guide.
We all set off walking to the falls, which we could see in the distance, the path at times was narrow and you had to watch your step. As we passed peoples houses along the way the local children came out shouting “hello, hello” in English, three of these local lads also tagged along with us as ‘unofficial’ guides. At one point we stopped and looked back at the van, which was now the smallest dot in the distance. Our trek however, was worth it.
The falls were stunning with a beautiful rainbow shimmering across the plunge pool and we spent about 40 mins resting in the silence and the taking in the scenery. Andrew and Tilly decided that they were going see if they could climb behind the falls and set off with a couple of the local lads in tow.
They returned safely and we started to head back down the track. Along the way one of the lads started to try and talk to me in his language, I obviously could understand him, so asked Philip to translate but it quickly became clear that Philip (who speaks a number of the local languages) didn’t recognise the language he was speaking either so Philip had to get one of the other lads to translate for him. Here was first hand experience of some the language challenges in Uganda.
Upon reaching the van we paid our ‘guides’ and set off back to Mbale. Exhausted we arrived back at the Shine On Hotel, we all needed a shower and a lie down before we headed out to eat together.
We took the next day off and visited The Mount Elgin Hotel, an opportunity to rest and use their pool. We also had a massage each and when the masseuse (who was born again) found out we were Christians she asks us to pray for her and her co-worker and they were both suitably encouraged.
Tilly also arranged to meet this girl again the next morning to go and get her hair done. So Tilly disappeared early the next morning and we lost her, in that we didn’t know the hair salon that she had gone to.
We were supposed to be speaking at a conference at Philip’s church so Philip Janice, Andrew and myself headed to the conference with Philip heading back into Mbale to find Tilly, whom he tracked down at the hotel with her ‘new hair’.
The conference had a terrific atmosphere with the Holy Spirit moving freely, we also had a great time praying for people with a number of people being healed and as with our time in Karamoja Tilly was followed around by a huge crowd smiling of children.
Philip took the opportunity to take us to his house to meet wife Rose and the family and see the well and the solar panel that the church youth group had raised money for.
The well was 25ft deep (though some are as deep as 60ft) and was a real blessing to the people of Philip’s neighbourhood. The solar panel was a particular blessing, Philip use to have to travel into Mbale to charge his phone. The kids from Philips neighbourhood also turned up to see what was going on.
It was time to start thinking about making our way back to Jinja, Philip thought rather than take on the road works on the Mbale-Jinja road we would travel via Tororo passing close to the Ugandan/Kenyan boarder. The Tororo road is well maintained because it one of Uganda main artery’s bringing in much needed imports from the Kenyan port of Mombasa. It was so nice to be travelling on a decent road and it also provided us an opportunity to see some of the local wildlife and view some interesting local travel arrangements.
We encountered a group of Baboons and as we stopped and threw a couple of Bananas and some Mangos for them it quickly became clear that the alpha male was going take everything away from the others and he was very large and quite intimidating.
As we were observing the Baboons I saw a couple of lads on a push-bike going in the opposite direction carrying something which looked like a live calf, no, surely not? So we turned the car around and caught up and sure enough they were carrying a live cow on a push-bike.
Our journeys destination was the ‘Rivers of the Heart’ retreat centre on the banks of the River Nile. What a beautiful place, peaceful with amazing views of one of the world’s most famous rivers, we were to be spending our last night in Uganda here, what a privilege!
So after a good nights sleep and a hearty breakfast we started our we packed our things and started our journey back to Entebbe, our aim was have a final meal together on the banks of Lake Victoria, we had left plenty of time and we needed to, it was slow going and took us 5hrs but it was worth it we had a lovely meal in a beautiful location a great way to finish our trip
On reaching Entebbe it was time to go our separate ways, we all gave Philip a huge hug and said our goodbyes. Andrew and Janice were catching a later flight back to London via Amsterdam and as such were not allowed to enter the terminal until later. Tilly and I were heading for Nairobi and a night on the terminal floor, this time catching a direct flight back to London.
The whole trip had been an amazing trip success and we were truly grateful for the all the prayer and financial support that we had received.