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Uganda 2000 - Soroti District

Soroti Project 2000 | Project Photographs

Soroti District

report by Martin Takel Soroti Unit Leader

Soroti is a town situated North West of the capital city, Kampala. The main part of the town is laid out in blocks with a main street running through the old town and continuing into the old colonial district. The old town architecture is mainly Indian in origin with the streets lined by shops. At the end of the town lies the ‘European’ part of the town which in colonial days belonged to the ruling British. Large English style houses are set back from the road, and the green areas of the town were originally part of the old Golf course. Soroti has had a turbulent past. Most of its Asian citizens were driven out during the Idi Amin period, and has seen occupation by the Ugandan army, the Tanzanian army and even up to five years ago the town was in the hands of insurgents. The land around Soroti is flat except for large outcrops of rock. One such outcrop dominates the town and is its most distinctive feature. Perched upon this rock are huge buildings which I imagined in my western way were hotel buildings. They were in fact huge boxlike reservoirs which supply the water for the town. From the top of the rock one can see for miles around the town, in one direction lake Kyoga and another the road to Lira. Other large outcrops of rock rear above the plain like ocean liners on the sea.

The Soroti unit was unusual because, of all the contingent groups, it was the smallest, comprising of only 5 persons. These were myself, the unit leader from Camberley in Surrey. Chris Boorman from Tunbridge Wells, Cara Martin from North London, Michael Knight from Rogiet in South Wales and Paul Middleton from Derby. The other unusual aspect of the unit was that we didn’t know what our project in Soroti was to be. However, being a small close-knit unit was an advantage as we could be as flexible as we liked. We therefore went to Soroti with few, if any, expectations.

We had left Budadiri near Mt Elgon in our minivan at around lunchtime and drove through huge thunderstorms towards the town of Mbale. At the main road we headed towards Soroti. Accompanying us in their own bus were twenty odd members of the Hampshire/Masindi unit. We were all tired and dirty after our time on Elgon and I know that certain members of the Hampshire lot were looking forward to their hotel. Hotel?? It turned out that some were told they were sleeping in a hotel that night. Anyway we arrived in Soroti obviously not knowing where we were to meet the Soroti scouts. We drove through the town and stopped at a government building to ask. They told us that there were some scouts camping nearby. And so we drove to the old golf course area where we found the scout camp. Unfortunately the scouts were not there. According to one of the leaders left behind it seems that they were jogging to the edge of town to greet us. Somehow we had missed each other. And so, taking the said leader with us, we set off back towards the edge of town. Sure enough, we passed a large group of sweaty jogging scouts who waved and cheered, although on reflection they could have been begging for a lift. We continued to a piece of land a half mile further on by the side of the main road. A few minutes later the band of scouts turned up and told us that they had only ran there to meet us and now that they’d met us it was heave-ho and back to the campsite. Back at the campsite we met the DEC, Ariko John, clutching an itinerary for our stay which, if I remember correctly, bore no resemblance to what we actually did. And so after cleaning ourselves and erecting the tents we had to turn our mind to food. The Soroti leaders treated us to a meal at a café-bar called the Silent Night. I have to be honest here and say the food was awful. Gritty rice, chewy chicken and thrice cooked, smoked beef which sorely troubled the old fillings. Going out to the rear of this establishment showed that the food was prepared next to the toilet which, like all Ugandan toilets tended to come alive at night. Mind you, they tended to come alive during the day as well! And all this in yet another downpour. And so back to the campsite for the campfire. Again another downpour which literally put the dampener on the celebrations. It had been a long day and as usual when tired you don’t see things in a positive light, I went to bed vowing to leave Soroti on the next stage and hoping that the meal we had at the Silent Night was actually not going to give us the opposite.

Morning arrived. Sounds of whistle blowing and people running. Getting out from my tent I noticed that all the Ugandan scouts had gathered in lines and jogged off into the town singing as they went. The camp itself was divided into small sub camps, each comprising a patrol. Each patrol originated from a troop somewhere in the district invariably based in a school. These patrols were in competition with each other in order to represent Soroti at the jamboree at Kaazi. The competition was judged on smartness, punctuality, inventiveness and scoutcraft. All of their equipment had been destroyed by the various passing armies and therefore their tents were made of branches lashed together with string, covered with straw. Those lucky enough to own a sheet of polythene managed to keep out some of the rain. Each night there was a campfire, and each patrol had to put on some form of entertainment. Us included. Breakfast was organised - guess where? The Silent Night. Yuk! But one thing we did find out was what our project(s) were to be. Community service and tree planting. After breakfast, we followed the open lorry carrying the local scouts to a nearby village, a typical round mud hut village with straw roofs and a market. At the side of the market was a pile of detritus that we were to bury. The scouts with the digging tools set to and dug a trench. Paul, Cara, Michael and Chris all lent a hand while I looked important, took photos and talked with the leaders. Phew! Hot work. Eventually the rubbish was buried and we took our leave. Off we went to a nearby housing estate and cut the grass with hand held tools. I had a go at it but it was not easy. We had more success however when we entertained the local kids with our singing. We also introduced the locals to the games of hopscotch and noughts and crosses. Lunchtime and the leaders took us to - well you probably guessed. The Silent Night. This was too much and so I had a little word with the District Commissioner, Mr S.A. Bhatt. He seemed concerned at our disliking the bland nature of the food, and asked us what we did like. Anything with herbs and spices, I replied. Bhatt told us of a Muslim woman that sometimes cooked for him and if she was amenable to the idea perhaps she would cook for us. Off we went to her house and, yes! She would cook for us. Right! That was that. No more Silent night.

That afternoon we attended the official opening ceremony. Back in the U.K we had been warned that the Ugandans enjoyed a good speech and that it was de rigueur to start by naming all the V.I.P.s in their order of importance. This opening ceremony was no different. One by one the officials stood to address the throng. Me included. Interestingly enough I don’t remember much about my speech. I know I waffled on about a house having to have good foundations and that is what scouting in Soroti seemed to have etc.etc. However the rest of the Unit seemed to think it went down well. After the speeches we all trooped around the sub camps admiring the skills and ingenuity of the scouts in regards to their camp gadgets and pioneering projects. I have to say, it was impressive. They had made such gadgets as sliding gates, shoe racks, viewing platforms washing up stands, tables, and had dug holes in the ground to facilitate their cooking pots, with ventilation channels to allow the wood under the pots to burn all the better. It was on this walk that we came across the highly poisonous scorpion. What with the toads, frogs, snakes and jumping spiders I tended to keep my eye on the grass a lot more after that. While the ‘nobs’ were being directed around the site I slunk away to do my washing. Yes! Washing. My clothes had not been washed since coming to Uganda and I was a bit concerned about attracting hyenas. Therefore we boiled some water and washed whatever I could. The entry in my diary states - “washed clothes. Sun dried clothes. Took 3 hours to get clothes off line”. 3 hours?. What happened was, that every time I went to take something from the line I heard the words “Martin, I’d like to introduce you to X”. I know it had to be done but talking to some high powered dignitary with your underpants flapping in the breeze just behind you didn’t seem quite right somehow. Never mind. Once everyone had gone it was time for a highly vegetarian spaghetti dinner and then on to the campfire.

Campfire! Part of the patrol competition was being able to put on some form of entertainment. Each patrol was asked in turn to do a riddle, sketch or song. Ugandans are very uninhibited when it comes to campfire. They love to sing. Most of their songs originate from the army and when the camp leader asks for a ‘general number’ one of the gathering will come forward and lead the rest in a song. They attract attention by shouting WEE. At which point the rest will answer WAH. Then wee, then wah. At that moment off they go, singing away. Accents are a funny thing. During one of the sketches I could have sworn that a Ugandan said “before I meet the Queen, I must remove my testicles! Time for a quick rummage around with finger in ear holes when, blow me down , they said it again in the next sketch! It got a laugh the second time round as well. After the third time I thought it might be time to ask. Ariko John told me that the dictator Idi Amin could not speak English properly and was reported to have said, during the official queen’s visit, “Before I meet the Queen, I must remove my testicles” when he meant SPECTACLES. The Soroti scouts took every opportunity to work it into their sketches. We were asked to provide some entertainment and so we dragged out the old favourites. We got the puzzled looks as usual, but by the next day we could hear echoing around the camp the strains of YOGGI YOGGI YOGGI YOGGI YOGGI YOGGI. they hadn’t quite got the hang of it yet but it got better. By the third day you could hear arooti cha, arooti cha, thumbs up! Bum out! Etc.! They were slowly coming round to our way of thinking. Putty in our hands.

Soroti scout district is huge and fragmented. Most of the scout groups are based in schools and therefore have no centralised official site. Until now! Soroti town council have granted the scouts an area of approximately 20 acres of land just outside the town. It has a water supply in the form of a natural spring. It is flat and fertile. And so it had been decided at committee level that in order to develop the site some form of revenue had to be raised . This was to be done by planting Eucalyptus trees which are termite resistant, and grow long and straight and can be cut after 7 years to provide scaffolding etc. This money would go back into developing the site. And so, armed with digging tools we drove to the site and planted two and a half thousand young saplings. I have to say that I fell in love with this site. All my life I have had the ability to visualise the end product of an empty piece of land. It doesn’t always kick in, but as soon as I saw this land I knew what was needed. Off I went arms pointing here and there saying things like “ that’s where the meeting hut should be. There’s the storeroom”. Ranting. Raving. I loved it! It was in this period of creativity that the first discussions of designing and manufacturing a proper Soroti district badge were tentatively entered into. So Mr Bhatt, the DEC and myself discussed a badge showing the Eucalyptus trees and a spearhead (showing that Soroti wanted to spearhead scouting in Uganda), on a black and white background (showing the link between Africa and the U.K). This project is going ahead as I write. Still, enough of the rustic stuff. After a morning tilling and turning the red soil of Soroti we adjourned to a nearby catholic mission that had a bar?? Soft drinks all round under a cool shelter and back to camp.

Ever seen 5 British scouts with cheesy, dreamlike grins? Well you would have if you had been treated to an excellent dinner cooked by an superb cook. Bhatt’s friend did us proud. My knees cracked painfully as I fawned before this woman begging her to cook for us again. “Oh, alright then” she said, glimpsing the money held in my fist. And so back we went to camp and built an obstacle course using the wood set aside for the campfire. I guess the obstacles were to be temporary but the Soroti scouts were interested in how we put it together and seem to be almost taking notes. We encouraged them to race each other over the course carrying buckets of water and measuring how much water was left at the end. It was different!

There was a couple of hours before it got dark. So out came the pencils, pens and diaries and, under the shade of the big Mango tree, budding writers hunched over their books busily trying to write down all that had happened since getting to Uganda. It occurred to us that this was the first time we had had to ourselves since arriving. David Esamij, the district chairman came over to inform me that the following evening we were to stay the night in an African home. I was to stay with him and was to choose one other of our team. The other three were to stay at the home of a school teacher. Michael was to come with me. That evening yet another campfire. By this time we were starting to know the Ugandan songs quite well and so able to get into the swing of things. Hope to god I don’t meet the Queen, I might just say the wrong thing.

The next morning. Whistles, running, singing, jogging. Really, it was enough to wake someone up! As usual I was the first out of bed (just thought I’d get that in) and got the fire going for tea. After breakfast was FLAGBREAK! Flag break was serious business, as it should be. They have a flagbreak leader whose sole job was to shout “CAMPUHS, CAMPUHS ALUHT! AT EASE! ALUHT! AT EASE! ALUHT! COLUH PAHTY, RIGHT TUHN, LEFT WHEEL, LEFT TUHN! All very military. And so it should be. The flags were hung on a flagpole consisting of a crosstree lashed to a bent length of bamboo. There were three flags. One union flag, Ugandan flag and the scout movement flag. The Ugandan and UK, anthems were sung, and then ‘gonyama’ the scout anthem in Uganda. The coluh pahty then marched back and were dismissed. After breakfast we went off to the piece of land where we met the sweaty jogging scouts when we first got to Soroti. At first it looks like a grassy area by the side of the road. However the land belongs to the Soroti scouts and back in April this year they had planted a thousand trees on this land. Some of the saplings unfortunately had died and needed to be replaced. Another thousand trees were to be planted as well. It was noticeable that a lot of the trees had fallen over onto the ground, and were either being trampled on or eaten by insects. We discussed the idea of staking the trees upright and temporarily did so with the aid of tree branches. Knowing that the termites would quickly destroy these stakes led us to discuss the possible use of welding rods to act as stakes. It was at this point that the idea of pledging the money that Chris and I had brought to Uganda to the Soroti scouts in order to invest in these trees was born.

Meanwhile back at camp we started to prepare for the ‘closing ceremony’. At this point I must introduce you to the concept of ‘African time’. A friend of mine who had come to Uganda on the 1995 Surrey scout visit told me that Ugandans ran their commitments to either African time or European time. If a Ugandan agreed to meet you at 10 o’clock European time then he invariably arrived at 10 past 10. if it was 10 o’clock African time then it could mean any time between the Mesozoic era and Armageddon. And so when we were told that the closing ceremony started at 2 p.m. we didn’t hold our breath. We had to wait for the ‘Patron’ to arrive. This he did at around four, accompanied by his personal bodyguard, and the proceedings could start. Everyone but everyone deferred to the ‘Patron’. This was the man that held the purse strings. This man’s position in the community was invariably a government, and maybe even a presidential post, and it wasn’t lost on me that all the scout leaders were appealing like mad for funding not only for scouting in general, but to get to the Jamboree at Kaazi. I decided to stay out of the politics and stick to basics. Unfortunately my speech was interrupted by a downpour, causing minions to run about looking for an umbrella to cover the patron. Not my best speech but what do you expect when nobody’s listening anyway. The scout leaders led him around the camp and I hope they get everything they deserve.

Towards evening Michael and I got our visiting kit together and with David Esamij boarded the minibus and drove to the school where David was the headmaster. Reminders of the army occupation were always evident. The Tanzanians used the school as a barracks as did the Ugandan army, and the buildings have never really recovered. Lack of money means that the destroyed classrooms, smashed windows and broken masonry have not been repaired, though when you look at the fact that every child in that school wears a smart school uniform, you wonder at how bloody lucky we are in the U.K.

After grabbing some bottles of beer we drove out of town, past the airport and turned down a dirt track. Either side of the track were the round huts divided by groves of banana trees and cassava or groundnut plantations. Some way along we turned off the road into a group of about half a dozen round huts. “welcome to my home” said David. I was astounded. This was Africa!

Evening was approaching and the light failed quickly. We sat drinking our beers on, believe it or not a sofa, in the middle of a group of huts whilst David told us of how he came to Soroti from the north of Uganda. Invading tribesmen from the Sudan and Kenya plundered their land and killed his relatives. He had a large family with two sons and a daughter in Kampala at university. However he also was guardian to two twin orphan girls who revered David and served us dinner on their knees and kissed his hand when necessary. In all he provided for around 18 people. Dinner was served in one of the huts just as the lightning flickered in the dark sky and the rain started falling. By the light of a storm lamp we ate a wonderful meal and discussed cabbages and kings and tried to bridge the wide cultural gulf that characterises or different way of life. A magical evening!

At the meals end the girls collected the plates and we readied for bed. As usual before retiring I needed to know where the toilet was. “Follow me” said David and disappeared into the pitch dark. Now! I’m talking seriously dark here. Literally not seeing your proverbial hand before the proverbial face. After walking into a wall I remembered I had my small Maglite on my belt and with some relief found my way to the toilet. Thanking David and saying goodnight I opened the door, shone the light inside and the walls moved, yes moved, mainly in a downward direction. I mean, half of Noah’s Ark disappeared down the hole in the floor. “Oh brilliant” I thought. I have to squat over that hole. And so, gulping tremulously I entered ‘nightmare city’. On the way past the door however, a jumping spider found its way onto my leg. I don’t like spiders. I knocked it off my leg and it landed on the floor and stared at me. Honest! Mind you, I stared at it, hoping like hell that the batteries in the torch didn’t fail. Still what must be done must be done and never was someone more glad to get out of a toilet. Back at chez nous I wished Michael good luck and prepared for bed. Two hours later all hell broke loose. It seems that a cow had broken loose from an adjoining property and decided to quarrel with one of David’s cows. Well, in the small hours of the night with banging and crashing and hysterical mooing, scraping on the wall and the dogs going mental we could be forgiven for thinking that some wild animal was loose in the camp, ripping anything living to bloody shreds. So I went back to sleep.

It was still dark when I arose. Back to the toilet again. Not so much movement this time. We sat outside and had breakfast as the sun rose and David explained about the cow. Easy to laugh in daylight. We showed each other our photos from the U.K and talked some more. I told David about my desire to try the native grain beer. This is made by fermenting millet seeds to produce a heady brew. It is normally served in calabashes or gourds and drunk hot through a straw, as the millet seeds tend to float on the top. Definitely an acquired taste. So what did I have for breakfast? Yes, Pineapple, Bread and Eggs all washed down with hot millet beer.

After breakfast Joseph, our driver turned up with the minibus and we drove via the teacher’s house to pick up the other three and returned to camp. We had a busy day ahead. The Soroti ventures and guides were going to show us the view from the top of the rock. And so, fitting as many as we could in the van plus a few more jogging behind we drove to the base of the rock and climbed to the top. What a view!

A couple of hours later we got back in the bus and drove to the John Enoku training centre. This was originally a Catholic mission area set aside for fleeing refugees from the country’s struggles. After the area settled down the Catholic mission converted these simple round buildings into modern, all mod con dwellings for people to use when conferencing or training. It had a large grass-roofed meeting cum dining area and small meeting huts that were used almost like offices. They had also attempted to build a couple of large meeting halls but unfortunately the roof had collapsed on one and I had serious concerns about the safety of the other. If nothing else it served as a warning to the Soroti scouts that when they came to build on their land they should take advice and it was at that time I decided to put them in contact with the Avonja people.

An air of expectancy descended over the gathered people. Why was this? Dinner! Today was the day of our return to Bhatt’s lady friend. This time we were treating the Soroti leaders and so off we went. Two hours later, replete with a superb meal, I broached the subject of the money we wished to give to the Soroti scouts. Bhatt wanted to set up a three signature bank account to avoid accusations of abuse, but for £300 it didn’t seem worth the aggro. Therefore I had to trust that they would use the money wisely. After dinner the DEC, Bhatt and myself went to see an Asian businessman that was happy to convert the Sterling to Ugandan shillings. Back at camp with much handshaking and photographs the money changed hands. I can only hope that it is put to good use.

We have a free afternoon. The Soroti leaders have the onerous task of deciding who is to represent Soroti at the Jamboree and so they got into a huddle under a tree and stayed there for hours. We decided to go shopping. So the five of us and about half a dozen of the older Soroti scouts went into the town looking to buy some drums. Drums are a big thing at the campfire and we wanted to have our own. We walked miles. We must have visited hundreds of shops but to no avail. Funny though were the music shops. Their main choice of western music was between Bob Marley or Dolly Parton. They must have had every record she had made since she was three years old. No accounting for taste I suppose. Eventually we found some drums. Where? In a builder’s merchant that’s where. Why didn’t we think of that before? Still, armed with drums and other native instruments we retired to the market area where we bought some rush mats and some food for the evening. It was a really beautiful late sunlit afternoon when we walked back to the campsite and as I gazed around I became very aware that the friendship between the Ugandans and the team had grown. There was an easiness, a sense of humour, a camaraderie. Chris, especially had forged a friendship with a venture named Emmanuel which I see as being a long lasting one. (Emmanuel travelled all the way from Soroti to Entebbe just to see us off when we flew back to England. We never saw him at the airport. The information desk told him that we’d already flown out and so he went back to Soroti. What he didn’t realise was that it was the Avonja contingent that had flown out the day before. We didn’t fly out till the following evening).

We arrived back at camp to find we had a visitor. An aid worker for ‘Medair’. He had travelled down from the Sudan to attend a conference at Soroti. Finding out there were some Brits in the area he found the campsite and had waited to talk to us. He originally hailed from the Midlands and was working all over East Africa. He was an interesting guy to talk to and regaled us of life in the Sudan and Northern Uganda. It sounded grim. Two North Korean journalists had been executed there by the terrorists only the week before and he gave us dire warnings that when we travelled on to Masindi the following day to make sure we cross the Nile at Masindi Port and not go further north to cross at the bridge. We were likely to get as much trouble from the Ugandan army as from the insurgents. I asked him how he was able to travel around with impunity. “Simple”, he replied. “If they mess with us, their aid stops”. Reality huh!

After a simple dinner cooked over the wood fire we got ready for the last campfire. We gave it our best shot that night and the Ugandans responded though I felt that Campfire battle weariness was setting in with the younger scouts. We said our formal goodbyes, as we were leaving the following morning. It had been a long day and at the end of the campfire, Soroti team went to bed. Well, most of them anyway. By this time Chris’ friendship with the Ugandans knew no boundaries, and so, verily, did Chris spend his last night in Soroti partying with the Ventures. Until 3 in the morning. What he had forgotten was that Paul, Michael and himself had promised to go on the run with the Soroti scouts the next morning. At 6 o’clock they did come for them and Chris, looking lovely as ever in the morning shambled off into the awakening day looking like death warmed up. Serve him right. Wouldn’t catch me doing that!

So, that was that. Packed and ready to go we said our goodbyes until we met again at Kaazi. Funny! At the beginning of our stay I said I would like to be on the next stage out of there and here I am. On the next stage out of there. I felt sad. I had really grown to like the place. No-one can foretell what will happen to Soroti in the future. If you could bottle enthusiasm and sell it, I could make a fortune. And if the political climate is favourable and stable then I see a great future for this town. It is looking to the future in many ways. There are plans to extend the airport runway to take bigger airplanes. Investment in agriculture can be seen everywhere. Farmer cooperatives are starting to appear enabling people to get their crops to market. There is now provision for all young children to attend school free of charge and perhaps with time maybe all children will have the same opportunity. Even as I write the Soroti district badges have been designed and sent forward to the next stage of manufacture, letters have arrived from Uganda (Emmanuel to Chris) and replies sent. Time will tell.

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