The Dogs Of Ortum
In Ortum – a green village set in a valley between bare hills, I stopped. A gurgling river ran through it. The villagers farmed along the banks, and upon the pleats of the hills which later climbed into mountains. They lived in fear of the Lord, and of Illat the Lord of Death. The Lord of Death often appeared as a shadowy apparition on the riverbanks at dawn, but vanished when you waved to him. A blurring haze of grey dust clung low like ground fog over the hamlets, and on the hills, the clouds stood leaden, supported by pillars of rain.
The river flooded often, and the local Anglicans noticed that onions did well in the narrow alluvial plains, and so, a miniature Nile valley of onions had cropped up in Ortum. At the bridge, which had collapsed, men with cracked faces, and mouths full of profanities were forever getting in and out of trucks. They waited in line to suffer across the boulder strewn river bed.
I walked to the fuel station.
In the sparse shadows along the river, I thought I saw Illat, but the apparition was human: an old man, stumbling through the shallows, panning for gold. When I spoke to him, he scrambled and disappeared into the scrub.
The delay didn't worry me, it was a luxury I could afford. The previous day had been one of boredom and indifference, spent under a squeaking ceiling fan, in a grubby hotel room. Outside the hotel, the landscape had been one of identical slab-sided buildings -- an aspirational apartment culture trucked in from big city Nairobi -- but it just made the place look improper and grungy. There is a certain progress to be discovered in oddness, which is not to be found among obvious familiarities. As long as there is the unknown, there is hope. And so I had left, north-west, away from intimacy.
At the only fuel station in Ortum, blue faces fluttered behind the milky window of a pre-fabricated building. At the foot of the window was a patch of wild oleanders, a billy goat slept next to it. A group of squat women stepped out, and warbled in a sing-song about not having any diesel. A gust whistled in tearing into their clothes, flattening the oleanders. The goat stood up, and shook itself down like a dog.
I said – Petrol is fine. The pump was an ancient model -- one of the women put her back into cranking a handle, while the other filled up the jerry-can.
Ortum appeared on the map when a great arterial highway into the South Turkana desert was made in the 80s. The highway stretched itself towards a massive dam built across one of the region's rivers. It was earnestly believed that the dam would provide electricity, irrigation and turn all the pastorals into devoted farmers. The river had never streamed enough water to satisfy the lofty ambitions of the dam – and when the gates were opened, only a mere trickle issued forth.
The women spoke of the dam in a homeric past tense. The dam was distant, a relic from some long forgotten time which lay beyond the broken highway.
The raindrops came, smacking and exploding in the dust, turning the earth red. We ran and sheltered in the zinc overhang of the shed, where it smelt of diesel and goat's milk. There was a small girl with calloused hands, boiling water on a stove – she looked up sensing my stare, and pouted through cracked lips.
Six months ago, an Englishman driving a big Land Rover had appeared in Ortum . With him, in the back, were his passengers - twelve dogs.
The man had blotchy skin, was overweight and balding, and by popular description bore a strong resemblance to the famous wrestler – 'The Undertaker'. The canines were of different colors and sizes, at least two of them had were covered with spots, and one of them even resembled a pig – the likes of these the locals had never seen.
At dusk, the man stealthily drove across the river, stopped, looked around, and set all the dogs free. Unbeknownst to him, a watchful resident saw this, and immediately alerted the people. As the white man, turned around and prepared to drive back across the river, the villagers surrounded him and began to stone him.
Who was he? Why was he releasing all these animals here?
‘I am coming from Tanzania . Is this how you treat foreigners?' he said trying to beseech the crowd.
But, it only served to enrage them, and the stones flew in thick and fast.
The man pulled a hand-gun, waved it about, fired a warning shot, and said: the person throwing the next stone would be shot.
The local law enforcement soon arrived, and they clapped the man in chains.
‘For his, and your own safety' they told the crowd.
The prison cell of Ortum was a hot airless room, with rancid green walls, and past memories of unhappy men – in winter, it also served as a store room for out-of-season onions.
The room was stacked to the roof with stitched sacks, the floor littered with dried onion shucks, and high on its walls was the tyrannical photograph of a past president. But the giant stuffed thing placed upon the chair only resembled a sack.
It was the manacled Englishman, eating mouthfuls of jail food -- a vile plate of beans and onions. It was meal enough to break him down.
He was an expatriate from Tanzania . During his tenure, his wife of many years had left him. Caught up in work and travel, he had no time for her – so she spent all her time with their dogs – she collected a dozen of them. And then one day her patience finally ran out, and she called it quits.
“Good bye”, she wrote, “I am going away, and I am not coming back...” in a brief parting letter. Sadenned, but undeterred, the man had carried on for a while putting his energies into his work, for he had been brought up in a family of staunch Calvinists – which meant there was going to be salvation in hard work.
But work was only an interim distraction -- a bitter stream of correspondence soon arrived from England , and along with it, official looking notices from some hoity-toity London barrister.
The woman wanted his money and half the dogs. He fretted and fumed for a while, and then his hair began to fall out – great clumps of it.
‘Well…' he thought, 'I am losing everything…..she could get my money…..' – for all his bank accounts were in London – '…but she will never get any of the dogs…'
So, he drove far, across the border, as far as Ortum, a place he did not know, and could easily forget, and decided to release the dogs there. "Go..!! Go....!" he had shouted, clapping his hands, urging them never to come back. And that's when he was caught.
The police inspector – an ex-athlete with a drooping stomach which told a tale of immobility and impending retirement, and the local Chief were both sympathetic and reasonable men. They had been through numerous tribulations with women and wives. The Englishman's story brought a tear to their eyes. The crowd shuffled outside, bristling with stones and sticks. The Chief, an old man who looked 50 but was actually nearer to 70, stepped out and proclaimed in an authoritative voice: ‘The man has agreed to go away, and take away all his dogs. Let us forgive him' . The mob grumbled, but reluctantly conceded – a good stoning was not something that came by often.
The man sped away in a cloud of dust and the dwindling sound of barks.
During the latter part of the 70s Idi Amin Dada, the erstwhile dictator of Uganda – and self proclaimed King of Scotland (and Lord of all beasts of the earth and fishes of the sea and the conqueror of the British empire in Africa in general and Uganda in particular) engaged in a border war with Tanzania. The Tanzanians to their own surprise, easily routed the Ugandans, and then proceeded to invade Uganda with the intention of toppling Amin. Every scheme was employed to weaken the retreating Ugandan army – and a bizarre kind of biological warfare was to come into play. Partly inspired by extant Chinese military doctrine, a Corp of rabid dogs was parachuted into Uganda – in the hope that they would bite and infect the retreating Ugandan troops – turning the soldiers into mindless, frothing lunatics. Unfortunately one of the planes had strayed, and off loaded its cargo rather close to the Kenyan border – some of these dogs had bounded across the border into Kenya and bitten many people in Ortum.
'Since that day we remember Tanzania and dogs as very bad things….', the woman said, counting the change for the fuel, '....but you are okay, you are not from Tanzania and I can't see any dogs'
In the maps Nasalot seems inconsequential, a mere footnote. We had driven past in the morning ignoring the weather-beaten signpost and the smoking shacks of the wardens.
On the way back the Lutheran decided to take the diversion. We crept past the still smoldering building which said ‘Head Quarters' – it had been deliberately torched, for there had been a termite infestation. In this part of Kenya , humanity is still dwarfed by the rigors of nature. All the rangers now roasted inside brand-new termite-proof, prefabricated tin structures.
“How are you?” one of them got up and said.
The Lutheran was a German, with a double-barreled name, which she now pronounced in an unfathomable manner to the lurching warden.
“My name is ________ _______ and I am here to….”
He waved us in hurriedly, still staggering under the blows of Franconian Deutsche.
We drove in silence. Every few minutes, the Lutheran's companion, a chubby woman dressed in a foolishly youthful checked shirt (‘chubby checker') whistled out a sentence with typical German pessimism: “Zere is nossing here…nossing at all…”
Nasalot is a big empty question mark of scrub, howling dust devils and towering termite mounds, which marks the borders of South Turkana with West Pokot and Uganda . Nobody ever comes here.
The bush trail appeared to end at a plunging precipice, the northern border of Nasalot. “We go south…” the Lutheran said with some certitude, after consulting an oil-drop compass. “But, zere is nossing…” chubby checker still whined.
Southside, the desolation is obvious, scorned even by termites. The Lutheran starred straight ahead and continued at a furious pace.
It was visible from afar, elsewhere it might have appeared ordinary, but in this vast emptiness, the solitary tree stood like a beacon.
“Felsblock…?!” chubby checker said, pointing towards the tree. The elephants appeared like boulders, carelessly placed in the shade of the tree. They had converged in the only available shadow for miles –and they stood there now glowering at us, as if worried we might take it from them.
The Lutheran and chubby checker squinted and said a prayer in German.
Four Pelicans and a Bicyclist
Three Mormons congregated at the only café on the deserted main street of Jinja.
The angel Moroni had appeared one day to Joseph Smith, the founding Prophet of the Mormons, and handed him a set of golden plates, which glittered with words inscribed by God in ancient Egyptian. Smith translated the words in this “Golden Bible” into the Book of Mormon. Moroni was to reappear later and take the plates away from Joseph Smith. The three missionaries in the café quickly mumbled a prayer to the overflowing plates and glasses of pineapple juice on the table, and then dug into the ham-burgers. Their shirts were white, starched and stiff – the eldest of the three was a plump man moving on to fat, his name tag read: “Elder Aaron ________”. Elder Aaron left in a Toyota pickup. The two younger men left on bicycles. The servile waiter frowned as he cleared their plates, they hadn’t left a tip.
The town centre was a dusty grid of single storied buildings, whitewashed and engraved with hindu numerals indicating the date of construction. In the awning of one of the buildings dated 1931, rows of tailors pedaled away on old Remington and Singer sewing machines. The tailor was a drawn man with an infinite forehead, the expanse of which made him look unsettled and infirm. He had a hopeless smile and when he chuckled, it was borrowed laughter from a happier past. His wife and younger son worked behind in the shop. As we stepped inside, a dog slunk out, its teeth crunching a bone. The walls of the shop were bare, except for a portrait (clipped from a magazine) of Princess Diana and a yellowing photocopy of a degree certificate. He had worked for an Indian ‘tailor master’, who had sold out and gone.
The tailor spoke proudly of his son, who had been to a fashion school in Nairobi. The elder had gone to Kampala and taken a degree in the sciences. They had not heard from him since. The pleats on th e tailor’s brow reappeared: ‘He had a degree, and we had none.’
I saw them later -- him stooping and plodding through puddles of rain-water in his gum-boots, the wife and son, a few paces behind under an umbrella. They sang in choir, but with low voices, a gospel song which I didn’t understand.
I rented a moto-taxi to take me to Bujagali, 4 kilometers away. The driver was called Okello and was from Buwayo a small village not far from the Kenyan border, “I belong there”, he said to me. We stopped briefly at a cattle-dip to let a herd of long horned Zebu oxen cross the road. As we waited, Okello told me he hated Jinja “Always rushing, hectic, too much hurry-hurry and fast-fast”.
Afterwards, I searched for this hectic Jinja that he spoke off, and couldn’t find it.
Jinja lived in a state of dispirited torpor, a ghost town of aborted projects and boarded up factories. The agricultural trade fair ground was a field of waving grass, vegetable patches and grazing cattle – the big government paper mill had a rusted lock on its gate and a yawning security guard – there were warehouses for sugar, but their roofs had caved in – the air-field was without a wind-sock and children played soccer on the runway.
In Bujagali, a few kilometers downstream after the hydroelectric dam, the Nile broke out into raging rapids. Here, screaming white-water rafters toppled over through Grade-5 rapids. A man in a ragged t-shirt wandered about on the shore holding a plastic jerry-can. For a few dollars, he would jump into the river and navigate the rapids using the jerry-can as a life raft. A crippled man performed convoluted acrobatics on a pole. The few tourists in floppy hats and spindly white legs clapped in great excitement.
In the calm pools after the rapids, a thorny island stood in the middle of the river. Bujagali is named after the Naomba Bujagali, the spirit Guardian of the Basoga tribe. During certain times of the year, the Bujagali floated down on a papyrus raft to the islands where the spirit shrines were said to reside. He was the 39th Bujagali, and when he grew old, he would divine a successor by dreaming of his exact appearance and location – that chosen man woul d become the next Bujagali.
Someone showed me the Bujagali’s house, it was a big brick and plaster mansion, with a prefabricated outhouse, all of it surrounded by a brittle fence of cypress and clematis. Unfortunately, the Bujagali wasn’t around, he had gone to Kampala for “consultations”.
“You will have to go to Kampala to meet him…” the watchman said, his ear glued to a blaring transistor radio.
“How will I know who he is?” I shouted.
“Can’t miss him, he looks like Lucky Dube”
I walked on a track along the river for about an hour, until I reached a hotel. It was built not far from the runway, perhaps in the hope that one day it would attract package tourists bussed in by charter flights, which had never happened, instead, the hotel saw a steady stream of seminarians from Kampala. The board outside announced one such event – a conference on water conservation. There was a swimming pool and a bar, perched above the swirling whiskey brown waters of the Nile. It was empty and silent, except for the dissonant sound of applause from the conference area inside the hotel.
I settled down poolside with a whisky and my notebook. A while later two women appeared in bathrobes. They undressed and stretched out self consciously in stringy costumes. The taller woman was pallid, like someone suffering from solar deprivation syndrome – maybe she came from a place with feeble sunlight. The shorter woman was prettier, and her skin was glossy, tanned to a uniform sun-bed bronze. They had the lean bodies of people who worked out three times a week and followed programmed diets. And so, they ordered a Caesar salad, and spoke of supermarkets, dog food and beautiful vacations spent at a beach resort in Sardinia. They eyed me nervously, casting glances in my direction, wishing I would go away. I ordered another whisky, and continued to write.
I was reminded of the story of a melancholic Sardinian who I had met once in Malindi.
He was from Oliena in the province of Nuoro a place steeped in folk-lore and bullet riddled road-signs.
It was an area noted in the past for banditry and blood feuds between families. The Sardinian had met a girl from neighboring Orogosolo, and they had fallen love. They had to meet secretly, because their families didn’t approve, and Orogsolo was traditionally Oliena’s bitter rival. One summer, unknown to their families, they drove to the coast for a beach holiday, in search of la vita bella – the beautiful life.
It was a particularly hot summer, which made the grapes sweeter, and the wines stronger. They drank and partied, the girl sunbathed all morning, and basked all afternoon, and then they partied all night. One evening, the Sardinian found the girl unconscious, passed out in the bathtub. The doctor arrived, pronounced her dead, and diagnosed “heat stroke and dehydration”. The Sardinian was distraught. The family from Orogosolo wanted his head, in Oliena his family’s honor was at stake. On a misty Sunday morning, just as his mamma was leaving for mass, an innocuous package arrived – a wicker basket-case full of fresh vegetables. In it was a piece of paper, with a black spot and a single phrase which said “with regards, from Orogosolo”. It was a hex, a sign that a hit had been ordered on the Sardinian’s head. Mamma panicked, he was immediately shipped off to faraway Malindi on the Kenyan seaside, where a distant uncle ran a discotheque. Africa, it seemed, was far enough to be safe.
The Sardinian was portly and balding now, an unwilling immigrant, brutalized by the transplant overseas. His neck, a deflated bagpipe with folds of skin, which inflated slightly and wheezed when he spoke. “I don’t belong here” he gasped, waving his arms around his dismal gelateria, “but, we can only be in one place at a time…” He never went back.
The search for the source of the river Nile can be summarized thus:
Richard Burton and John Speke started from Zanzibar, in search of a “great lake in the mountains of the moon”, from where the Nile was said to originate.
The Egyptians believed that Isis, the goddess of fertility, sister and wife to Osiris the god of the dead, sat at the headwaters of the Nile. Ptolemy, the Greek geographer, placed Isis roughly in the middle of the African content, a place with a large lake, surrounded by snow capped mountains. This two thousand year old Ptolemaic inaccuracy was the map guiding the two explorers.
They reached Lake Tanganyika, now in modern day Tanzania. On the way, Burton mowed down a few locals, and obsessively took “measurements” of the men of various tribes along the way (the measuring instruments he had perfected while serving in India). Speke, the more diplomatic one, coerced and bribed and also studied the flora and fauna. Burton was tall and built like a prize fighter. He carried deep scars on his cheeks, where once a Somali javelin had pierced him. Speke was shorter and deaf in one ear (a beetle had crawled in, and he had dug it out using a knife). They were buddies, on a casual first name basis ( “Dick” and “Jack”).
At Tanganyika, Burton fell ill and dropped out. Speke was going blind in one eye, but pushed further north with a small party, and reached what the locals knew as the “Sea of Ukwere”. He christened it Lake Victoria and promptly headed back to England, where he grandly announced the “discovery” of the Source of the Nile – Isis was unveiled. Until then Burton had been the famous adventurer, the man with machismo, but now found himself out of the limelight.
Speke was given funds to go on a longer exploratory trip. The slighted Burton made some noises that Speke was mistaken, and that the Nile really originated further south at Lake Tanganyika. Few people listened. He grew a long beard, and went on a sabbatical to Mormon mecca – Salt Lake City. Here Burton quoted the Ancient Mariner upon sighting another lake – the great Salt Lake – ‘Water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink’. After expressing his admiration for the practice of polygamy among the Mormons, he sailed back to England and married a staunch Catholic.
Speke navigated the Nile, reached Lake Victoria and named the waterfalls near the source as “Ripon Falls” after the main backer of the trip -- a Lord Ripon (who would later go on to become a Governor General of British India). Speke returned from his successful second voyage – and Burton immediately challenged him to a one-on-one debate on the matter of the true Source. It was to be a “duel for the Nile”. But, while out shooting partridges, Speke accidentally shot himself. Burton quietly spread a devious rumor that Speke had in fact, committed suicide.
The source in Jinja has a concrete plaque indicating the spot where Speke stood gazing at Lake Victoria and the Nile. There is a neglected golf club next to it, in which the English writer Evelyn Waugh once drank a cup of tea and noted: “…the only course in the world which posts a special rule that the player may remove his ball from hippopotamus footprints….” The hippos and resident crocodiles drowned after a dam was built across the Nile in 1954 at Ripon falls.