It was early 2005, and I was trying to claw my way out of a personal abyss. The time of disbelief had somehow run smack into the time to play catchup with everything that had been sitting around waiting. Work was wonderful as a way to keep demons at bay, and total immersion let me pretend that nothing was really wrong. I was functioning, wasn’t I? It was around then that a good friend called me and asked if I would be willing to come to Kenya, and after work perhaps there would be a little time to play. We would go to Uganda from Kenya, and after a stay at Queen Elizabeth Park, we would go on to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and if we got really really lucky maybe we would see some gorillas! After Bwindi we would drive to the little village of Nyaka, and spend the night there, visiting with the parents of Jackson Kaguri (who was married to Beronda, someone we had known for about 5 years). Jackson had started a little school in his village for children who were AIDS orphans.
We were met at the airport by Steven (and when you read The Price of Stones you will know who I am talking about, except this was now a grown young man) and driven in a van to QE Park. The Mweya Lodge at QE park is a beautiful colonial structure and it and the park deserve a separate post. After a boat ride to see river hippos and a morning safari we set out for Bwindi National Forest. The Bohuma Homestead was much more humble (though not in the $$ it commanded, due to its prime location), and the stopping point before we set out on a hike to track the gorillas.
After several hours of hiking through steep muddy slopes, covered with brush that had to be hacked away by a machete, we finally came upon our family of gorillas! A large silverback male, who was a mere flash in our peripheral vision before disappearing into the forest, had in his harem several mamas, with babies suckling at their breasts.
The gorillas seemed only slightly wary of this small group of humans, as we sat about ten feet away from them, and silently watched them at work and at play. The mamas groomed their babies and inquisitive teenagers, like this one, foraged around the bush, while also sometimes stopping to put up a show for the observers:
We were allowed one full hour to watch these gentle giants in wonder and awe. And then it was time to leave and make our way back to the real world. This sojourn in the forests of Bwindi somehow helped me to root myself back in the real world. There was something about seeing Bwindi’s gorilla family in a social gathering of near human creatures; it brought me the realization that man is a social animal, and we are nothing without being in connect with the world around us! So after several days of communing with nature, we set off to Nyaka. On the way Steven told us that his father has passed away, as had his older aunt, and that at Nyaka we would meet Mama and Tata and Jackson’s middle sister and younger sister.
Africa is a continent of contrasts. For a reasonably well off traveler from the Western world, luxury is well within reach. You go for safaris in a chauffeured jeep or van, with an accompanying guide, stay in posh lodges, eat lavish meals, and generally do not miss much that you were used to in your day to day life. Nyaka was to be our first experience with the real world in a Ugandan village. The family is a prominent one in the village and the house was a permanent structure with several rooms.
We were overwhelmed with the welcome we got from Jackson’s family and the dinner that had been cooked for us. Despite having stayed in Uganada for 4 days by then, this was the first time we encountered Maatoke, made of steamed green bananas, it is the starch staple in Uganda. Accompanied with a peanut sauce, it made an interesting meal, along with several other dishes that the family had generously prepared for us. But Nyaka did not have continuous electricity at the time, nor was there running water. The village water supply was from a stream a short distance from habitation, and water was filled in large plastic containers and hauled back to the village. This made the Kaguri family hospitality even more overwhelming! And we were simply not allowed to help with any of the chores relating to cleanup after the meal was done!
Thanks to a mosquito net that protected our faces and necks, and generous spraying of DEET, we were able to keep the mosquitoes at bay. The novelty of our surroundings, the anxiety of leaving one of our group behind to volunteer at the school, kept us from getting too much sleep. We snoozed some and chatted some, and soon it was time to get up and get ready for the visit to the school. We walked next door to the school and were greeted by a smiling principal and music teacher.
Then we went into the classroom, to be greeted by a group of smiling singing and dancing children! They sang for us, played the drums and a wood “xylophone”, and recited for us. Their faces were full of innocence and the joy of encountering something new in their daily routine. It was hard to believe that these children were orphans, living on the generosity of relatives who are themselves often unable to afford a full meal.
That was when I realized that people like Jackson Kaguri are special. They are able to take the sorrows in life and channel them into something positive that enriches not only them and their community, but also visitors from afar! That visit started my connection with Africa that led to research collaborations, and several visits back. But Nyaka was not forgotten. Then I heard that Jackson had written a book about his life and building a school for his village. As I read the book, it has been fun to revisit my trip to Nyaka and think about how things were in 2005!