Our journey in eastern Uganda continues: we’re heading to a village called Budadari to walk two days to Sipi Falls.
We begin from Jinja, squeezing into a matatu and bouncing down the terrible roads towards Mbale. The road is so rutted that at one point I bounce out my seat and hit my head on the roof – thankfully we’re at the back and only Moz and another lady see my red face. We change into another matatu and drive up into the hills, the mountains around hanging with mist and rainclouds. The road rolls through small villages, kids practise dance moves by their houses.
We reach Budadari and carry on on foot for the last 500 metres, bags on backs. The are hills around, covered in green. People come out of shops to look at us and wave. We buy batteries in the little village centre, walk through the market – a collection of wooden shacks where women are selling spinach, tomatoes, mounds of small smelly dried fish. Our guesthouse is basic but lovely; the power is out so we eat dinner in the dark and head to bed at 9pm. We’re staying at a guesthouse called Rose’s Last Chance; the indomitable Rose runs the B&B and greets us when she arrives back from town. She has a tailored printed dress and braided hair and hugs us to her; she has been at a political meeting in Mbale and represents women from the mountains. I ask her what their main concerns are and she says poverty: the government are working to help by providing down payments for a cow or a goat; if you gave the women money, Rose tells me, their husbands might just drink it away. When I’m beating Moz at cards she’s happy: “girl power!” she says as she passes.
Cockerels wake us in the morning and we get our small rucksacks ready. We’re off for a two day hike to Sipi Falls, and we’re accompanied by Lawrence, our lovely chatty guide, and Mike, who doesn’t chat much but carries everything in a sack on his head and smiles a lot. “Strong man!” he tells us.
Over the next two days we walk through coffee plantations, villages, homesteads, following narrow tracks made and worn hard by the repetition of footsteps. It’s tough: we have to climb and descend three valleys and soon we’re breathless and sweating; Mike and Lawrence never seem to break a step or need to pause for breath. We traverse our way up a cliff-face and I plod slowly up, hands on my hips and breath burning in my lungs, only to come around the corner to see an old lady – looking like she’s in her 90s – making her sprightly way upwards. We cross streams over wooden planks and raise our hands on greeting to the people working in the fields who stand to look at us as we pass. They wear black gumboots and the women are in skirts, their heads covered in printed pieces of cloth. Lawrence teaches us how to say ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ in Bugisu and when we try these new words out the people we meet break into smiles and laughter at us speaking their language. Children in a remote primary school run screaming into the grass yard, waving and shouting at us. We’re followed everywhere by little voices: “how are you? how are you?” – “we’re good!” we call back, “how are you?”. They smile, give shy waves, echo back: “how are you?” When they come to touch our hands, the children kneel on the ground in respect, something I’ve never seen before. Kids here seem so robust, you never really see them with adults, even little tiny ones are looked after by their older siblings. I spot one six year old with a baby tied on her back and a gaggle of toddlers around her. The babies never seem to cry here; you can be on a matatu, bounced around on bumpy roads for hours and a baby will sleep soundly. I guess if your parents are in the field most of the day you have to be strong when you grow up here and independent from an early age.
There is a group of young men harvesting bananas and roasting some for their lunch; they scramble up the slope to the road to share their food with us, the banana laid out on a large leaf and served with salt. It’s kind of them and so delicious.
We pass through a hamlet and a lady comes up to us, kneels to us like the children, and escort us through her village, kneels again and crosses herself as she leaves us.
Mike buys more bananas from a stall for us to eat, and huge sweet avocados. We’d heard about the local beer and spot recycled plastic bottles filled with a brown liquid: “is that the local beer?” Moz asks pointing. Lawrence looks and laughs: “no, that’s petrol!”
On our first night we camp at Sisiyi Falls, a large waterfall tumbling down over a cliff. The campsite is beautiful, with huge rocks dotted between trees, thick roots like the bodies of snakes, hanging vines. We’re the only ones staying and Ronald, who works at the camp, and Lawrence take us up to climb over the rocks beneath the waterfall. Afterwards we relax and they bring out a plastic jerry can of the local brew – busara – which is made with maize and tastes like fermented porridge.
We leave early the next morning and follow the boda tracks which have worn down the road and packed it hard, shining with use. We pass people’s soft-eyed wet-nosed skinny cows, chickens scratching in the dust, ducks, goats, a newborn kid searching its mother for milk. A motorbike overtakes us with two men on the back, the middle one unconscious with his head lolling backwards – I catch the worried look of the third man on the bike trying to hold his friend tight. “Malaria” Lawrence says; he’s being taken down to the local hospital.
The second day has more steep climbs and we reach a village, sweating and dirty, accompanied by others from the fields carrying their goods to the centre. It’s filled with people preparing for market and I’ve never seen more bananas in my life. The curved stems of the banana plant make perfect hooks to attach onto bicycles and I spot women hunched over with piles of bananas tied to their backs. Lawrence explains that the people here harvest the bananas, bring them to the villages where they are bought by traders who will take them down the valley to the larger market and then onto the rest of Uganda, Kenya and the DRC. Names of the traders have been written on the banana skins in felt pen and they’re then piled onto the backs of lorry; people sat ontop wave down to us.
Beyond the village we pass villagers’ plots and suddenly hear a women ululating, dropping her panga and running after a small boy. “It’s a thief!” Lawrence says as Mike doubles back to watch the action. Others have stopped work and are running after the small boy carrying their machetes. “They won’t kill him” Lawrence reassures us, then adds “I don’t think…”
We pass the area where Mike’s family come from and reach his aunties home: an old lady in tshirt and dress comes out, clutches our hands and crosses herself. She wiggles her shoulders cheekily and throws her hands in a little dance, chatting away in a tongue we don’t understand.
The final hill is a long one, a sweaty climb until at last we’re going downwards towards Sipi Falls. It’s an 85 metre drop and I’m so happy we’re finally there; our legs are aching and we’re tired. There are three falls in total and this is the top one, though I’m glad we are just exploring this one – I don’t have the energy for anymore. The spray soaks our clothes and feels delicious and cool on my skin, we climb up behind the Falls and look back down at the churning water and the rainbow refracted below.
Hours later, back at Rose’s, we have a hot shower from a bucket and wash off the mud and grime. Rose has set out a flask of tea for us in the garden and there’s a plate of samosas and mandazi, a deep fried sweet doughnut snack, which both disappear pretty quickly. “Will you take a cold beer?” Rose asks as she comes over “it’s good for your health, you know”, a twinkle in her eye.
Next stop: the capital city Kampala