I don’t know what I expected. Something different. Something less ordinary.
Two of us sat, on a Wednesday night, and watched people cautiously, nervously moving up and down the road in the flickering light of a garbage fire. An hour earlier we had been sitting on the flat rooftop of a run-down hotel, watching the world fade to night as the bats flew over, waves and waves of dark outlines against the sunset sky.
But nothing is as one-dimensional as it sounds. We watched that fire from just outside the Chinese-owned supermarket that sold cold sodas and packets of biscuits and chewing gum and sweets. A few doors up the road was Coffee Hut, where foreigners gathered for chocolate milkshakes, proper coffee and wireless internet. Not too far away was the bus park and the Tropikana Inn, where we stayed.
The Tropikana Inn. Our rooms, our suite really, was on the second floor. Four en-suite single rooms off a large, tiled lounge area. From the lounge, a door led out onto the balcony that ran the length of our apartment and looked out across the road over a row of shops and a pool-bar and on the other side to an open courtyard where they fetched water and did the laundry. There was no running but otherwise it was clean and comfortable. With doilies. So many crocheted doilies. In the evenings, we watched as people sat outside the bar across the road at little tables drinking beer and played pool at the outside pool-table. The beer adverts on the pool table weren’t the same as at home but they were very similar. There was a table on that balcony, where we sat most evenings, writing, journaling.
Gulu never turned into a place of deep conversations long into the night. I guess partly because we were tired. It was hot. And muddy. I still have orange dusk on some of my clothes – I think it’ll never come out. During the day, we visited various groups and places and people. We watched a group of local dancers. They were good but they expected to be paid for the privilege of watching them, which left a bitter taste in my mouth. I enjoy traditional dancing (in small doses) and I’ve seen a lot over the years, but I object to being expected to give people money, being expected to pay not because they assume I think they are amazing but because they assume that I am from another country and therefore should feel sorry for them.
Another day we visited farmers. Jimmy. A young farmers who cares for his cow with his wife and their three children. He was busy putting in a biogas unit when we visited. The biogas unit will produce electricity from the cow manure so that they don’t have to use wood to heat and light the house, which will be particularly good for his daughter who suffers from asthma. Their little homestead is surrounded by shoulder-high millet and other green, growing things. They grow to eat, though, and buy in to feed the cow.
Later that day we visit a diary. And then walk to the bank. Another day we visit a clinic that also runs a women’s microfinance project. One afternoon we were at a home for disabled children, chatting to the guy running the place, when a crazy man whisked us off in his white landcruiser to visit a farm he was running to supply the home with food. It was one of the craziest, and one of the most interesting, bits of visiting Gulu. This man has been there for years and years and knows the history from the inside. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t think like a settler, but he is a less distracted by the recent past than some. He tells us how his rice crops were ruined by the elephants. How, when the war came people stopped paying attention to the game reserves so the population of wildlife grew too fast and now elephants rampage through farmland destroying crops all over the place. He fed us freshly picked groundnuts, straight from the ground. He showed us their beehives and brick-making and how cassava grows. He drove like a maniac. Sitting in the back of the landcruiser, bumping and bouncing along awful farm-roads while someone explained the name of a river in the local language.
The next day we travel out to meet with someone who works with the diocese here. The church is different to an aid agency because it stays. He talks intelligently, coherently, about what has happened here over the last decade, about the war and the refugee camps and the reconstruction. He is concerned about the impact it will have on the local economy when the NGOs pull out. One morning we went past a place where the Japanese foreign aid agency is helping people grow rice. They’re all here. We play a game of NGO-spotting, trying to write down all the names of the many, many NGOs that work here. We spot the Invisible Children sign, months before the disastrous #Kony2012 debacle. Some of the signs are old, in disrepair, as NGOs begin to pack up and leave. It is 5 years since the war ended. Near the market at the bottom of town is bright new shiny Uchumi supermarket.
In between all this is orange dust and hot summer sun, chapati for breakfast and innumerable bottles of water. We eat plantain and millet and I have stew while the others eat beans. I try to find food that is a little more familiar or a little bit tasty. The whole town seems to have run out of Stoney. We find a Lebanese Restaurant called Cedars and that awful Will Young song follows us around. In the evenings we drink beer – Nile and Club – and hope for rain to wash out the music from the bar across the road that gets louder and louder through the evening.
We left on the early post-bus. We had been looking into the option of travelling straight from Gulu to the DRC border but eventually decided was that meeting up in Kampala would reduce the chances of missing each other and/or the bus at a strange random crossroads in the north. So we woke at 5 and by 5:30 set off down the sleepy morning roads of Gulu.