I realise that these posts have been very hospital-focussed. That’s because our life here has been very hospital-focussed but to go without describing our local village and our local community would be a major omission.
So, Bwindi hospital is in Buhoma (village), Bwindi being the term used to describe the area generally, and certainly the term which is used in the tourist sense. We found this really confusing when we got here. “Buhoma?” “Where is Buhoma? Oh here?” “Then where is Bwindi?”
Everything – geographically and economically revolves round the National Park (which is the impenetrable forest.) It’s a funny shape. The park gates serve as the end of the road, though the forest can be crossed by foot (in about 6 hours) to get to the other side and to another district called Kisoro. If you chose to drive to Kisoro, it will take much longer by beautiful mountain roads along the edge of the forest. So, my guided tour of our home village starts at the park gates which is the highest point you can get to in the valley in the car.
Just outside the park gates is the village of Nkwenda. The main road here is lined with kiosks selling gorilla carvings and paintings and fabric, and offices advertising community walks, or orphan projects (with orphans dancing for tourists……..). Folk of Nkwenda are used to seeing tourists, speak good English and know how smiles win sales. Back down the road (back down the valley) you drive towards Buhoma. The road is beautiful as the valley floor is on the right hand side, and the slope beyond it on the far side is completely forested. In the floor of the valley, and on the lower slopes, are settlements and small plantations of bananas and crops. The river and the hydroelectric plant nestle there too, though you can’t see them from the height of the road . The trees on the forest side are elegant with their white straight trunks, and the canopy is bushy and lush. Some of the trees are in flower, giving a creamy dusting to the tops, and a mixture of other colours at times. They rise up to the undulating ridge that forms the horizon.
Follow the road down the road past the tourist lodges – “Trackers” (an up market lodge with a posh swimming pool where they won’t let us swim), “Volcanoes”, “Engagi,” ”Mahogany Springs.” Then down towards Buhoma and another class of lodges for more local visitors. Then the road dips down towards the centre. The ”Highway” bus is parked on the side, with people washing it, changing the tyres, doing repairs on it as it rests between its 14 hour hauls to Kampala. On the right is the gym and then the sign to Monkey House – our hospital guest house, our second home, our place of companionship and rest and fun.
On down the hill to the junction – the most important junction because the road to the right leads to the hospital. The junction is the centre of things. Here is the boda stand, where the motorcycle drivers stop with their vehicles and wait for passenger. Here is the bar, the “Good Shed” bar, and the chippati man and the roasted sweetcorn, and the kebabs. There has been building work behind the boda stage since we arrived, so there are piles of sand and bricks to negotiate as you walk through. It is also the home of the ever-noisy, every busy, weaver birds who chatter relentlessly.
Next is the supermarket. This wonderful place brings comfort to our lives. It’s been here for a year, I think, and (usually) has supplies of bread, biscuits, fizzy drinks, tomato puree (essential for sandwiches on the sweet bread) and even, sometimes. cheese! The cheese is round and called Edam which is a nice euphemism for something salty and cheese-like. It is kept in a deep freeze, next to the meat, sometimes not wrapped. When I pick it out, I say a little prayer that the power hasn’t failed and the meat hasn’t defrosted its juices onto the cheese. So far so good. Sometimes the supermarket has dairy milk chocolate and sometimes raisins. These are for an eye-watering price. But sometimes it is worth it, just for a taste of the familiar.
Opposite the supermarket is the “excellent drug shop” which is indeed excellent as it appears to have everything I have looked for there, even if I cant find it in the hospital. Next is the track up to the ‘proper’ market. The Market itself takes place on Saturday afternoons, but, during the rest of the week, there are still several permanent stalls selling pineapples and cabbages and sweet potatoes and yams and tomatoes and bananas. We get our veg from a lovely lady who rescued the girls when a massive storm caught them off-guard in the market, and the market turned into a muddy river with no way to get out. She took them into the hut behind her stall and comforted them. She’s had our market business ever since.
On Saturday by mid afternoon, the market has come to life. Beyond the veg stalls is the meat area. Everything is outside. There are goats hung up, slaughtered and draining blood, various cuts of leg and body of beef and goat. There are, knives, pangas, slabs with lumps of fat congealed on them, flies, puddles of blood, dogs, weighing scales, bustle and salesmanship. Behind all these, the temporary framework of stalls are covered in blue plastic sheeting so people can shelter from the sun or the rain. In the stalls, clothes are piled for sale – they look like piles from European jumble sales – white shirts, black trousers, skirts, sheets, fabrics, socks. Then there are stalls with flip-flops and shoes for school, one that sells light-bulbs and solar panels and batteries, there are ladies selling banana fritters and other goodies. There’s a hustle of men in military fatigues who come down to a little camp from the border post on the ridge. And there is our friend, Godfrey.
Godfrey has a dignified appearance, and imposing frame , a thoughtful smile and glasses, and he sells smart shoes. We first met Godfrey when we were invited to attend a wedding and the girls had to be bridesmaids. We had to find ‘smart shoes’ quickly and Godfrey came up trumps with shiny patent leather affairs for both of them. Godfrey buys shoes in Kampala and sells them locally. He has realised that Mzungus have a soft spot for birkenstock sandles and can’t resist the non-European prices. Miss A and Little Roo have built up a striking collection of high quality (second hand ) footwear since they have been here, and become Godfrey’s friends in the meantime. Godfrey like so many here is overqualified as a travellilng shoe salesman. He has a masters degree in Business administration and excellent proposal writing skills. But around here, there are few employers for these skills, so for now, he uses his acumen in entrepreneur-ism and developing his own NGO.
There are two more crucial businesses on the rutted path up to the market from the centre. There is Ruthy, the tailor, and Bright and Ellen’s vegetable shop. We met Ruthy whilst meandering through the village soon after we arrived. We were drawn to the lovely items in her shop. I have a brown and yellow dress to show for it (!). And she has, in the months we have been here, made the girls a number of really beautiful clothes. Our shelves in our home are filling up with fabrics to take away courtesy of Ruthy. Next door, Bright and Ellen have a veg shop. This is an outpost of the hospital as Bright (who has a qualification in agricultural engineering) manages the hospital’s vegetable garden. The profits from the vegetable sales go back to the hospital, and the range of vegetables is a source of greens for the community and place for nutritional outreach. It’s dark inside (there is no electricity) , on the ground there is a pile of potatoes a metre deep. There’s a shelf with pineapples and another with water melons. Passion fruits are kept behind the counter, five for a thousand shillings (20 pence.) Ellen has a brass weighing scale for measuring which the girls delight in using.
Then there are the people. Doorways to the shops are always open, People coook and chat outside their stalls and the kids run between. Boda’s rush past. The hospital staff wander into the centre after work just to look around, the nursing students too.
A visit to the centre means meeting and greeting a dozen people and catching up on news. It means dodging tea lorries and avoiding the rubbish in the muddly runnels at the edge of he road. It means keeping clear of the tourist vehicles hurrying up to the safety of the lodges. It means stopping by the weaver birds tree to look at the nests and hear the crowds. It means looking at the highest posts to see the Maribu stork presiding over it all like a huge dirty folded-up parasol. Mums with babies on their backs, men with tin sheets balanced on their heads, someone reeling drunk across the path, old Batwa ladies with no shoes, kids in uniform, former patients.
On down, down down, past the mechanic, past Anna’s Gorilla tailors, past Winnie’s boutique and Isaac’s hair salon. Past the shop that sells blankets, and then the iron-mongers, the stationers that sells agricultural pesticides, past Aunty Peace’s house and Dennis’s hair place, past the nursing school, past the many bars and night-places .
And then you leave Buhoma behind you, on down the road to the villages Kanyashande, Kyeshero, and the towns of Butogota, Ntungamo, Kanyantorogo, Kihihi and beyond. This is our world.