Little Africa

April 16, 2010

Like all elders, my mom likes to make her childhood – “back when movies cost a quarter” – sound dramatically old-fashioned. She grew up “on a farm,” and she and her brothers and sisters had to walk “for miles” through “a jungle” to get to and from school. They called their jungle, probably an unweeded vacant lot, Little Africa. For years my dad listened to stories about Little Africa. At every telling my mom thought she was talking about overgrown plants, but my dad thought he was hearing about a neighborhood of black Americans.

I used to laugh at my dad’s perspective, wondering how he ever imagined a black community in Kentucky in what my mom would call, with only a little exaggeration, “the country.” But at least he had the logic of analogy on his side: if Little Italy is full of Italians rather than grape vines and olive trees then why wouldn’t Little Africa be full of black people?

Now, it’s hard to say which stereotype is funnier. We do think of Africa as deepest, darkest jungle, even though a third of the continent is desert, and much of the rest is savannah. On the other hand, we continue to call black Americans African even though most have had nothing to do with Africa for centuries. A black American is as plain old American as a white one. There’s no need to qualify.

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Getting Married

April 11, 2010

I was thinking about my options. Three trucks were parked outside the party, all of them full of gifts to be delivered to the fiancée’s family. The refrigerator, wrapped in gold, looked heavy. So did the stove. The bags of rice and floor seemed a little more manageable, but they were dusty and I was in a black suit coat I had borrowed from the fiancé. I grabbed one of the dozens of crates of soda and beer, and I took my place in the queue.


Before you get married, you have to get engaged. Some rushed or unfussy couples might eschew the pomp of a formal engagement but insofar as there is necessarily some period of time between the moment they decide to get married and the moment they actually do, they were engaged. We think of an engagement as a private decision, however anticipated it may be by others, that is later communicated publicly, ideally to cheers and congratulations. Among the Buganda though, an engagement is a family affair, a ceremony just as elaborate and meaningful as the wedding itself.

In the local language, the engagement ceremony is called an introduction. Traditionally, it is the day when the two families meet to negotiate a dowry. We, those of us on the man’s side, had met earlier in the afternoon at a hotel not far from the house where, in more conservative times, the young woman would still be living with her family.

There is a uniform costume that all guests are expected to wear to an introduction. For the women, it is a colorful wrap reminiscent of an Indian sari. For the men, it is a long white robe called a kanzu and, on top, a black suit coat, a local twist on the lore which advises something old and something new. I had borrowed my outfit; my girlfriend had rented hers.

We entered in procession, men and women in two parallel lines. It was a lawn party, with two large tents facing each other across a short court of grass. Her extended family, about one hundred delegates, was already seated under one of the tents. He and his guests, an envoy of another one hundred emissaries, were ushered to the seats under the other tent. It looked like a scene of medieval battlefield negotiation. A third, equally large tent for unrelated guests had been erected on the slightly elevated driveway, like stadium seating for the jousting competition. Immediately when we sat down, friends of the bride delivered cold drinks and snacks from baskets on their heads, part flight attendant, part circus trick, part chorus line.

Negotiations began promptly, and it seemed like they would never end. In Africa, endless insipid speechmaking is the feeble child of the oral tradition and historiography of preliterate elders. Every gathering, no matter how small and informal, begins with a succession of hollow speeches, most of them no more than platitudes. An introduction, at least, is a little livelier because it is a negotiation, however stylized.

The deliberations were conducted in the Buganda language, but the friendly flow of banter and theatrics was easy enough to follow. The fiancée’s family enumerated the many reasons why their daughter merited her high sticker price: her beauty, her education, her connections, her lineage, her job. The fiancé’s family haggled, pretending with a smile to look under the hood for manufacturing defects. The fiancée was kept in hiding until the deliberations stalled, at which point she made a dramatic musical entrance. Immediately, the fiancé and everyone else exclaimed that she is indeed worth everything her family had demanded, which, by convenient prior arrangement, was exactly what we had brought with us to give them.

We, the fiancé’s entourage, went to fetch the gifts. We were a small army of movers in formal wear, like the opening scene of an orgiastic pornographic film. On our first trip, the women carried towering baskets of party foods on their heads, the foreigners discretely using one hand to balance their loads; the men made a chain and carried crates of beer and soda, looking like elephants walking trunk to tail. On our second trip we carried more practical foodstuffs: eggs, sugar, flour, and boxes of water. On our third trip we each carried a small wrapped gift, labeled explicitly for a particular member of the fiancée’s family. There were a few exceptional gifts too: the refrigerator, the stove, the carcasses of one goat and one cow, and several live chickens. Most of the presents were obviously intended to help offset the cost of the party; but others, like whatever was inside the dozens of handwrapped boxes, were clearly meant to begin forging a bond between the extended branches of the two families. Ironically, by the time we finished our delivery a wall of gifts had been built in the small grassy court between the two families. Sometimes generosity just gets in the way.

We were hoping that the program would relax once the deal had been sealed with a kiss, but the formalities continued. On the equator, direct sun feels like a red science fiction laserbeam that incinerates any human it hits. You can almost smell your hair burning. What is rarer on the elevated plains of east Africa is hot air temperature. On a glaringly bright afternoon, the tent trapped the warming air, and we sweltered in our layers of borrowed and rented polyester clothing. As the sun dropped from its zenith its rays angled into the side of the tent where we were seated, and our exposed skin withered and cracked like old autumn leaves. By the time the party ended in the late afternoon we felt like leftover beans that had been simultaneously baked and fried for hours; we were crusty on the outside and mushy on the inside.

Back at our cheap hotel, the air conditioner was broken. But thankfully the shower water was cold.

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Developing the Moon

April 1, 2010

The quest for the source of the Nile was “the opprobrium” that shamed geographers for millennia. The ancient Egyptians knew the river as far south as the great fork, but further exploration along the Blue Nile was blocked by the fortress highlands of Ethiopia and along the White Nile by the strangling, suffocating swamps of The Sudd. Following routes hacked and forged by the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans failed to penetrate any further into the vast blank space in the center of the map of Africa. It was not until the eighteenth century that James Bruce finally confirmed Lake Tana, in Ethiopia, to be the source of the Blue Nile, and it was not until the late nineteenth century that John Speke correctly speculated that the White Nile flows from the immense inland sea of Lake Victoria. Both men were ridiculed in England by disbelieving peers, incredulous that a puzzle which had confounded thousands of years of geographers and explorers had finally been solved. The source of the Nile is an x marking such a famous and lucrative spot on the map that even today countries vie for the title: Uganda claims the highest source; Rwanda the farthest; Burundi the southernmost; and Ethiopia the most voluminous.

Wrapped up in the mystery of the source of the Nile was the legend of the Mountains of the Moon, “mountains so high they defied all nature by bearing on their crests in this equatorial heat, a mantle of perpetual snow.” The Lunae Montes were first charted by the Greek geographer and astronomy Ptolemy in the first century, based on oral reports from the few travelers to Alexandria who had any information about the unknown people and places of interior Africa. For nearly two thousands years, learned Europeans chuckled at the image of snowy peaks in the thick of tropical Africa, until in the nineteenth century persistent reports arrived from East Africa about the glacial summits on the massive volcanic cones of Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro. But were these the fabled Mountains of the Moon? Or was there, as Ptolemy’s map suggested, a long, high range of mountains still hidden in the rain forest clouds of Central Africa? It was in 1888 that the debate was finally resolved when the American adventure journalist Henry Morton Stanley, on a hired mission to rescue the besieged Emin Pasha in southern Sudan, glimpsed the shimmering snowcapped peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains, the alien spine in very center of Africa. Not only is there snow on the equator, there are glaciers in a region famous as the heart of an oppressive jungle darkness. While Africa is full of astounding scenery, much of it lacks a recorded local history. Many of the legends that Europeans superimposed on the African landscape have become the commonly accepted mythology of the continent. The Rwenzori Mountains, straddling a few hundred miles of the border between Uganda and the Congo, are now known even locally as the Mountains of the Moon.

Recently, my girlfriend and I were hiking in Rwenzori Mountains National Park on the Ugandan side of the border. To summit the highest peak, Margherita, requires six or seven days of backcountry camping, but ours was a more modest adventure: a series of dayhikes from our base at a community campsite straddling the park boundary, an obvious line where cultivation abruptly bumps up against a tall, dense wall of tropical rainforest. The evening of our arrival we followed a community trail to a lookout point high above the campsite. From there we could see the park ascend in rugged stairsteps, first to the Portal Peaks and then, through a perfectly placed cleft in the nearer cliffs, to snowy Margherita.

The next morning Solomon, a park ranger and our guide for the day, led us on the first stage of the trail that eventually leads to the summit. Our goal was Nyabitaba Hut, where summiting hikers stop to sleep for the evening but where we would only pause before turning around to hike back down to our campsite. While not nearly as grueling as actually climbing the mountain, it would be more difficult than any single day on the summit trail, essentially doing two stages – the first one and the last one – in one long day.

Before entering the park, Solomon asked what other hiking we had done in East Africa, probably as a way to gauge our fitness. When we responded by saying we had climbed Kilimanjaro the previous year, he surprised us by saying that he had climbed the mountain in 2006. Even more impressive than an independent Ugandan tourist climbing a Tanzanian mountain, Solomon was part of a small group of select park staff – one other ranger, a senior officer, and two staff from Rwenzori Mountain Services, the sole concessionaire to run tourist expeditions in the mountains – sent to climb Kilimanjaro as a research expedition, to see what Tanzania was doing to manage its more famous mountain park that perhaps Uganda should be doing for the Rwenzoris.

Solomon almost did not get to go with his colleagues because he had trouble obtaining a passport. Being from the area around the Rwenzoris, Solomon’s tribe is closely related to the tribes of eastern Congo, and his family name is noticeably Congolese. Countless wars have been fought – are still being fought – in the forests of eastern Congo, and countless war criminals are known to be hiding there. The government of Uganda, in an effort to ensure that no Congolese fugitives manage to assume a new, Ugandan identity, scrutinizes passport applications from western provinces with a suspicion suggesting that the applicant is guilty until proven innocent. Solomon had to show his and his parents’ birth certificates to prove that he was born in Uganda to Ugandans, and he had to show his school records to prove he had never disappeared from Uganda, perhaps to fight and plunder in eastern Congo. After several interviews with government officials, he got his passport and then his paid trip to Tanzania.

When we asked Solomon what he and his colleagues had learned, he raved generally about the volume of the tourist traffic on Kilimanjaro relative to the modest trickle on the Rwenzoris. It was an answer that seemed to get the cause and effect backwards, like saying that a professional sports team is good because it has a lot of fans. When we asked what specific practices and policies they are doing in Tanzania that he and his colleagues were not doing in Uganda, he gave only two examples: “They have bigger huts, and more of them. And they have better cooks.” Natalie and I chuckled, fearing that the point of their research expedition had been lost on them, but throughout the day it became apparent that the Uganda Wildlife Authority does have a business model for the development of the Mountains of the Moon. And they seem to be sticking to it.

The trail to the Nyabitaba Hut follows the Mubuku River. Even in the dry season the river was violent and impressive, crashing over giant boulders that looked like little river rocks in the path of a tsunami of water. The trail crossed several tributaries, some of which were small enough to be forded but the other ones, the thick and powerful ones that fell like waterfalls rather than streams, were spanned by a variety of rickety wooden bridges. After about two hours of moderate hiking, the trail merged with one of the range’s spur ridges and angled steeply and persistently upwards. The ridge was so narrow it felt like walking on a stalled escalator to heaven, and on both sides of us the valley floor quickly dropped out of sight. To the right was the sound of one river rushing away below us and to the left was the sound of another; when facing straight ahead there was only the sound of the wind in the trees. Across the valley to the right was a wall of green interrupted only by the occasional cliff or waterfall, and across the valley to the left was the same postcard view. Rare birds like the Rwenzori turaco, endemic to the western branch of Africa’s rift valley, called from the tall, thick foliage. In the wet tropics, greenery grows in all three dimensions, as though it is trying to totally fill every available volume of space. I didn’t know until visiting equatorial Africa that poinsettias are trees.

Like the forest that we passed through, the trail was an ant colony of activity. Every few minutes we were overtaken by another group of three or six or ten porters carrying exactly two cut wooden building posts each. Some used cushioning crowns of woven banana fronds to balance their loads on their heads; others, typically younger men who were either tougher than their elders or thought they were, alternated between sore shoulders. Barefoot or in cheap sandals of used tire rubber, they ascended the muddy, rocky trail at a jaunt, pausing only to untangle themselves when their long, awkward cargo got caught on a jungle vine. Happy for a pause, we would step aside huffing and puffing to let them trot past.

Solomon explained the posts were for the construction of a new dormitory to augment or replace the old Nyabitaba Hut. On Kilimanjaro they had seen that every campsite on the most popular routes had accommodation to sleep over a hundred visitors. Nyabitaba, the only developed hut in the Rwenzoris, has only thirty beds. Solomon explained that it is rare for the park to get that many visitors in a single day, but that both ascending and descending hikers use the Nyabitaba Hut and that sometimes large groups from both directions meet and there is not space enough for everyone in the hut. During our hike, in the middle of one of the peak tourist seasons, we saw only one descending hiker and only four ascending hikers, so like Kevin Costner building his baseball diamond in Field of Dreams the construction of the new Nyabitaba Hut seems to be an act of faithful optimism. If you build it, they will come.

Later and higher, just before we reached the hut, the porters started passing us in the other direction. This time most of them, but not all, carried misshapen scraps of discarded wood. Some carried only a piece or two, but others labored under loads heavier than the posts they had carried up the mountain. According to Solomon, they are paid a flat rate by Rwenzori Mountain Service to carry the posts up and they are paid extra wages for every kilogram of scrap they carry back down. Each porter is free to choose how much scrap he wants to carry, or if he wants to carry any at all. As we had passed the park gate that morning we had noticed a large group of idling men, and we had assumed that as on Kilimanjaro they were hoping to be hired as porters for whichever tourist groups happened to be setting out that day. By the end of the day, after seeing so few tourists but so many porters on the mountain, it was clear the in the Rwenzoris the most reliable work to be had is in preparing for future tourists not serving current ones.

Finally we reached the Nyabitaba Hut, which needs to replaced more because it is too dreary than because it is too small. It is dark and dank, and the bunk beds are so crammed inside that the only way to get to the more distant ones is to climb over the nearer ones. I had to wonder whether I would prefer the one near the door, which would be more bright and airy but which would also be even less peaceful than having an aisle seat near the toilet on a long, crowded flight, or whether I would prefer the frighteningly dark and claustrophobic one in the corner where, once I had climbed past all the strangers between the door and my bed, I would at least get a good night of undisturbed sleep. The new hut was but a skeletal frame so it was impossible to know whether it would be an improvement in style or merely an increase in capacity. Making notes in the back of mind in case I return to climb to the peak, I made sure to confirm that hikers are allowed to sleep in their own tents.

Solomon gave us a tour of the campsite, proudly explaining some of the recent improvements like piped spring water from higher up the mountain and an unfinished side trail to a roaring but unseen waterfall not far away through the steep, dense forest. Most amazing was his description of the management of the camp’s two pit latrines, used one at a time throughout a one year cycle. After one of the toilets has been used for six months, it is locked and the other one is opened for the next six months. The six months allow the waste in the locked latrine to harden. Before the latrine is reopened, last year’s petrified waste is chiseled and shoveled and carried down the mountain one bucketful of excrement at a time. This is done, Solomon explained, because two million people live in the Mubuku River’s watershed, making it a health imperative that so much human waste does not seep into the drainage.

On the way down we asked Solomon about hiking possibilities in the park. Unlike Kilimanjaro, the Rwenzoris are not one big volcanic cone but a long range of craggy ridges and valleys. Our maps showed only one route up the Ugandan side, ascending directly from Nyakalengija to the east, and none up the Congolese side, which seemed like a colossal waste of space. Apparently our maps are dated, as Solomon explained that a new route, from Kilembe in the south of the range, has been opened. Two others routes – one from even further south at Kyarumba and one from Bundibugyo in the Semliki Valley to the northwest – are unofficially in use while still being developed for an official opening. All of the trails meet just below the peak, making it possible to combine them in any order to create several routes up and back down, and even clear over, the Rwenzoris. Solomon added that guides are not averse to bushwhacking, mentioning that a recent visitor had come exclusively to try to spot a very rare and elusive crimsonwing and had spent three unsuccessful days in an unmapped section of the forest. In addition, park rangers regularly bushwhack through unvisited parts of the park to monitor poaching and other illegal activity.

He chuckled when he mentioned that many of the guides and rangers are the children of poachers, and consequently he said they know the forest well, even the Congolese side. Recently, two mountaineering tourists hoping to save a buck had hired local guides to try to ascend the peak from the Congolese side. Their plan backfired when one of them broke a leg and had to be evacuated. Because Congo is in no political state to be developing adventure tourism, the injured hiker had to rely on Ugandan rescuers. Since he had not ascended from the Uganda side, he had not paid for their rescue insurance. The bill for the evacuation – and again Solomon chuckled – was a lot more than what they would have paid had they climbed the mountain from the Ugandan side.

At one point during our descent I pointed to an especially impressive waterfall across the steep river valley to our left, and I asked if I could come back and hire a ranger to take me to it. Solomon said it would be no problem, though he estimated it would take three days from the Nyabitaba Hut: one to bushwhack halfway around the top of the adjoining saddle, another to bushwhack the remaining half, and the third to hike back to the waterfall to enjoy the swim and the view.

We left the park that afternoon just as optimistic as Solomon and the rest of the wildlife authority about the park’s prospects. There seemed to be a managerial vision for the future of the Rwenzoris and a proactive plan to make that vision a reality. Indeed, everywhere my girlfriend and I traveled on our vacation, the Uganda Wildlife Authority and its community partners were equally inspiring. It became clear that their training is integrated when Solomon recommended that we ask for Bosco or Samson when we visited Semliki Valley National Park and they in turn recommended Patrick at Semliki Wildlife Refuge and Patrick recommended the Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary where he used to work. Though government employees, the park rangers were not bureaucrats; they were insightful naturalists who considered themselves lucky to have the important task of protecting Uganda’s natural treasures. Their passion showed.

Back in Rwenzori National Park, Solomon’s enthusiasm and confidence were infectious, making me hope I have the opportunity to return one day to the Mountains of the Moon.

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