Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Life on the Ssese Islands

April 10th and 11th

Two days of enjoyable lazing on Buggala island. We sit on wooden benches and watch the waves break on the shore. We swing in hammocks just at the edge of the beach. We drink cold beers from the bar as fast as the ferry can bring them over from the mainland. We make friends with most of the other people on the camp site. There are three Danish workers from Uganda, two young Germans, and a French couple who will shortly be moving to Hong Kong to teach.

Less attractive is a big party of Indians who come over for Easter but their arrogance and lack of thought for anyone else on the site makes them hard neighbours to tolerate.

We go for walks up to Kalangala town and explore it (that takes all of ten minutes), then Épi and I walk on the only other road leading out from the town and within a few minutes find ourselves deep in the Ssese countryside. Time stands still here.

On Easter Saturday the rustic peace of the island is shattered by a car rally. There are only about five or six vehicles, but they are accompanied by frenzied drumming of support from a truck with loudspeakers, and the rasping exhaust of the cars echoes between the banana trees.

Life on the island follows a rhythm. At eight o’clock the new ferry leaves for Entebbe with much hooting. The next thing you hear is the swash of its wake as the waves break on the beach. Th rest of the day is for sleeping, eating, watching the birds, reading, playing cards, or going for walks. We walk to a new resort further up the beach; the rondavels are beautiful and modern, but on balance we prefer our hippy huts. We also have a sand beach; the new resort has to make do with gravel! Nothing breaks the hot, sleepy torpor until five in the evening when the ferry returns from Entebbe. There’s a flurry of activity on the campsite between seven and eight in the morning as people prepare to leave on the boat, and again just after five when the new arrivals come in search of accommodation.

Unbeknown to us, another group of VSOs are on the island at the same time as us, but staying in different accommodation. We never catch sight of them.

Tina, the camp owner, has re-jigged accommodation to enable us to stay at “Hornbill”, but we have to give up our dormitory and separate into two groups of two. Épi and Soraya have one banda with a tiny double bed, and Tina and I share twin beds in a second hut. Geckos patrol the walls, and tiny ants roam the sand. Enormous wood ants also lurk, but they don’t bite unless provoked. The German girl is unlucky and seems to have sat on an ant’s nest – she’ll remember Kalangala for all the wrong reasons!

We go up to the village to eat, but find very few restaurants open. It may be the peak tourist time of the year, but the villagers aren’t going to let that interfere with their laid back lifestyle. Eventually we find one willing to serve us. It’s a curious building; brand new, but looking as if it’s part of a larger item which has been chopped away to leave just a thin slice of a structure. The kitchen and washing up area are outside. The women who run it are friendly and the food is excellent. We all eat fish; mine comes with posho (cassava), Soraya’s with rice and the others have matoke (stewed bananas), but done Ugandan style which makes it into a yellowish paste. We all try each others’ food, and everyone’s tastes good. The place we wanted to eat at, the “Jundo Family Takeaway”, with a sign saying “fish is de best”, turns out to have changed into a gambling hall. Nobody has been bothered to take down the restaurant sign.

We go into one wooden shack which is a ladies’ clothes shop; the girls want to see what is for sale. On the main street there’s relatively little food being sold by market traders, but plenty of groundsheets covered with second hand shoes from the West. A butcher is doing brisk business; one part of his stall is covered in tripe from a cow which has just been slaughtered. Its intestines lie in a greyish heap just behind the butcher. The meat is hung from a wooden beam and as the butcher selects pieces of cow and chops at them with his machete he keeps talking non-stop to his customers. There’s plenty of bars to drink at, and plenty of people drinking Waragi (gin) even at the hottest time of day.

Even here in Kalangala every other building seems to have done a deal with one or other of the Ugandan mobile phone companies. If they’ve sold their souls to MTN the buildings are painted bright yellow. If they’ve chosen Zain, they become a deep pink. (Back on the mainland there are whole streets where virtually every building is either yellow or pink).

At the camp site, Tina’s partner has a craft shop and we buy some pieces from him. While we’re buying he’s busy crushing cannabis leaves and mixing them with his tobacco. Later that afternoon, as the sun is setting, he gets so high on a mixture of dope and beer that he falls off his stool at the bar and can’t get up again. Tina, the owner, has a “full and frank discussion” with him at that point, much to the amusement of the other campers at the bar. We keep a discreet distance and let them sort themselves out….

In the evenings we eat with the rest of the campers (the Indians do their own thing), and after eating we play taboo. The camp has solar cells for electricity and it turns into a very civilised environment for everybody.

On the second evening we eat Oscar. Oscar is the camp site’s pig (as opposed to Olga, the goat, who is being spared the pot for the time being). One evening we’re feeding banana skins to Oscar; the next morning we hear him being killed. Graphic squeals turn into a gurgle and then all is quiet. The camp site is full to bursting; it’s Easter Saturday and Tina wants to celebrate. So we have fresh pork with our evening meal, and very good it is, too. Cheers Oscar – you didn’t die in vain!

Each day we have rain, usually in the mornings. The grass around the camp quickly gets waterlogged and sodden, and the muddy paths become dangerous. When it rains we stay in our huts and read or listen to music. Usually the rain doesn’t last long, and the freshness when it stops makes the greenery and birdlife all the more attractive.

The little jetty where the new ferry ties up has attracted a small village to it; there is only a handful of shops but plenty of houses all lying higgledy-piggledy on each side of the road. Invariably they seem to have palm thatch for roofing, and to be either made of wooden planks or sticks and mud. Everything seems poorer than in Rwanda. There are a dozen or so boats ranging from private cabin cruisers to local dugouts strewn along the beach. Anywhere else in the world all this would have been organised into a posh marina and a marketing opportunity; here on Buggala it’s beautifully disorganised and unplanned.

At the beach there is an abandoned cabin cruiser which makes a centrepiece for the area. Everyone gathers at the beach at dusk to watch the sun set over the lake and to take photos.
At night the stars are beautiful. There is almost no wind, but just enough breeze to keep mosquitoes at bay. We are not bothered by hawkers or beggars; the rest of the world, and especially Rwanda, seem an awful long way away. We are all of us falling in love with Uganda, and I think if we had the choice every one of us would abandon Rwanda and see out the rest of our time as VSOs here in Uganda. With a special request to be stationed here on Ssese…..

Best thing about these days – absolutely everything. It’s difficult to think of a better way to relax, chill out and enjoy making new friends.

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