With it’s serpentine twists and craters to rival the moon, the Gulu Highway seems no different from any other ordinary road. Parts of it seem solid and safe, others require something to release the nervousness about potential sudden death. It might explain a couple of highway entrepreneurs are in the business of making the journey “safer.” So upon taking any bus, usually there is the young pastor giving the message of Jesus; for you to be covered in Jesus blood, for journey mercies and to keep the Devil away. (For a small fee if you are touched by prayer, luckily it’s voluntary)
If you don’t take the bus, there is always an NGO vehicle or two parked at the trading posts along the road. Boss might not know this because official logs show that Driver is in the field,clocking up the miles and faithfully signing in the travel log book.
The average monthly wage for a driver is between UGX 400,000 and UGX 700,000. Equivalent to pocket change of many Bosses. But a sensitive boss knows to turn a blind eye when the team vehicle is being “taken for serving.”
A young man ran to me breathing heavily, “Madam are you going to Gulu?”
“Yes I am.”
“There is a car there for you.” I looked around, puzzled because there was no bus parked at the side of the road. “You see that NGO car there, the one with the big aerial? It is going to Gulu. You come and I take you.”
He ran ahead and gestured to me to follow him, and I did. When we reached the white 4×4, the driver was relaxed, his cream linen shirt crisp against the dark grey leather of the seat. The fabric was one of those generic Chinese creations with stitched tribal patterns. We exchanged pleasantries.
“How much is it to Gulu, or you are giving me a free lift?”
Driver looked at the fixer and said to me, “You ask him, he knows the prices here.”
“Thirteen thousand.” said Fixer.
“I’ve got only ten if you can accept that then we’ll go.”There was a silent agreement and Driver told me to get in and have a seat. I placed my bunch of boo on the dashboard so that the delicate green leaves wouldn’t tear and spill all over the floor during the journey. Driver climbed out to go next door and “Get something to eat.”
I spied at him as he walked to a shop and ordered chicken stew with an assortment of accompaniments beside little mounds of leafy cooked vegetables. Dark dodo, light cabbage. The impressive controls of the car tickled my curiosity. Surely the technological advancement (big antenna, GPS tracking, travel log, etc is no deterrent to a sweet feast at the weekend. Poverty management however says that trimming a bit from the petrol allowance makes the family happy.
After about twenty minutes Driver returned, mildly uneasy and scanning the vicinity. “Can you please put your greens away? ”
“Oh, OK.” I said and removed them from the dashboard.
NGO vehicles are amazing, they skim over potholes and glide beside craters as naturally and as gently as if they were living creatures built for comfort. While we drove on, I was asked about my village, my homestead, my extended family and why I was traveling. I vaguely mentioned a visit to some friends. I replied that I didn’t have any close family in Gulu except for an aunt.(..that I hadn’t seen in years)
Along the road we stopped for another pick-up. Another Fixer pressed a squashed 1000 shillings note into the driver’s hands after a brief chat. The back door opened and the cabin air was infused with the odour of arege. Outside, someone’s granny was trying to step into the passenger cabin. Mild displeasure and embarrassment tinged her words of protest, which followed the sound of limbs thudding on the metal floor of the car. She’d become a wearisome sack being bundled into the back of a moving container.
“You boys are not strong.”She got in. On her hands and knees, and Driver turned to ask if everything was alright. “I’ve got some pains. My belly hurts. I’m going to the hospital. To Karuma.”
Granny hobbled into the seat behind Driver. Composing herself, her green dress with sequined diamond patterns wound around her and peaked at the shoulders. Her moist forehead was wrapped with a black kerchief whose ends knotted at her deeply lined forehead.
Driver went out and popped the back door shut. When he got back in, I was heady with arege vapours and heat. Greetings were offered to Granny, at which she replied with the soft ‘t’ characteristic of the Luo tongue of any Alur or Jopadhola. At the second or third gear shift we accelerated on to Karuma, she fell to her knees and was now crouched right behind me. Her temporary seat shiny with the polish of countless bottoms.
Driver stopped the car and went round to the back. He popped open the door and threatened to throw her out. She scrambled to her feet and tried to gain composure.
“You are drunk.” said Driver with barely concealed annoyance.
“I’m not drunk, I’m going to the hospital. I’m seated beautifully now.”
“You’ll bring me problems, get out.”
“But I gave you money.”
The more she opened her mouth, the more drunk I might have become. Driver turned the ignition and onwards we sailed, past elephant grass still lush at the end of what is supposed to be the beginning of a long dry season. At Corner Kamdini we picked up two men. I bought a fine pumpkin while Driver lingered about for more people. Its hard skin was a work of pale white waxiness. A solemn man got in. His dark cotton shirt buttoned up to the neck. He bent slightly and spread a plastic bag on the floor near Granny’s feet. There he lay large cuts of fish steaks. It’s sweet marine scent of swampland replaced the gin odours.
“How much was your fish.” I asked.
He stammered, “Five hundred fifty. I mean five fifty.”
“Five hundred?” I asked, that was an incredible amount.
“No, five thousand.” He repeated then very slowly, “Five-thousand-five-hundred.”
I looked at the creamy pink flesh, dark peachy stripes where the machete blade had sliced clean through bone and flesh. “It’s a beautiful fish you’ve got.”
“Where did you get your fish?” Driver asked interrupting what could have been an interested chat with an earnest looking man.
Solemn craned his neck and looked to the left of the the road side. He pointed, “Over there.”
Less than fifty feet away, Driver pulled into the mud and trash heap nested in a small crater at the far left. He got out and I could see him negotiating with delicate looking man behind a wooden stall with three huge fish in deathly stillness. He walked back and stopped at my window.
“Give me that ten thousand.”
I put down the pumpkin and felt inside my canvas bag for a little banana fibre coin purse. I counted the money and passed it through the window.
Driver returned with Delicate following behind. Delicate’s smile showed patches of light pink on the flaky skin of his full lips. He pocketed the money and hoisted the toddler sized Nile Perch away from the table, leaving only two black tubes of Catfish with eyes fixed into the ether, glassy beads covered in grey film.
…End for now