The Motorcycle Diaries – Research in Southwestern Uganda

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Southwestern Uganda is the ‘Switzerland of Africa’ – where rural travel is not easy.

Anthropologists who study space and place often claim that one’s method of travel – for instance, flying in an airplane, riding a bicycle, or walking – has the power to uniquely shape their experiences and relationship with the land.

Somehow I’m able to reflect back to their theory, as I’m pushing a motorcycle up the steep slant of the red iron road, into the wet mist that’s shrouded the green top of the hill that feels more like a mountain. The anthropologists were goddamn right.

It’s the same village road that I’ve traveled along many times over the past year, though always in the padded seat of a 4×4 vehicle, with a window’s view of the awesome landscape – a green bowl with steep sides where farmers carve out plots of land, and their homes appear like small brown sugar cubes at the bottom of the valley.

But today, instead of enjoying the ride, I’m ‘footing it’ as Ugandans would say.

My hiking boots and jeans are stained in wet, red earth, and I’m soaked in sweat. Looking down, I’m no longer marveling on the majestic view, rather I’m searching for the spot along the thin, snaking road (that now appears like a red shoe-string) where the chain on our motorcycle broke, and left us stranded. It’s a long way down.

I press my hands against the sack of pineapples, a gift from one of the farmer’s we had interviewed, strapped onto the back of the motorcycle, and dig in.

It’s a long way up.

Getting There – Traveling Beyond Zones of Comfort

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Women ‘footing it’ to their gardens.

Over the past three months, I’ve been interviewing women farmers in their homes and their gardens, as part of my research for my book, Small – Stories of Women Farmers Who Are Changing the World, in rural southwestern Uganda – a region that’s known as the ‘Switzerland of Africa’.

All new visitors, when penetrating the magnificent, rolling hills for the first time, utter an expression of awe – ‘Oh my God, it’s so beautiful!’ But when they realize how the Bakiga people carve out their lives on the sides of the incredible landscapes, and the difficulty that geography entails, suddenly ‘beautiful’ turns into ‘unbelievable’.

Roads leading to villages in southwestern Uganda, where the majority of the population live out their lives, are rarely paved. They’re dug out from the iron-ore earth, and full of protruding rocks and drops and potholes. When it rains, there are mudslides on the hill, and impenetrable, impassable bogs that form on the valley flats.

Private cars are hard to come by, and so, the most common modes of travel are in the back of a truck lorry (crowded with people, food and animals), by motorcycle and bicycle (the wooden, home-made kind, or imported Chinese two-speeds), or more realistically, by ‘foot’ – hence the expression, ‘footing to town.’

It’s hard to understand the ‘isolation’ that the geography, poor roads, and distance cause for people, and specifically, women farmers in southwestern Uganda, until you’re forced to experience it for yourself.

Women speak of the challenges (and sometimes, impossibility) of moving their harvests to larger markets closer to Kabale-town, and traveling to the hospital for medical emergencies, including childbirth complications.

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Woman riding atop a truck lorry loaded with plantains in Ntungamo, Uganda.

Given the difficulty of travel in rural Uganda, it’s no wonder that the majority of pregnant women opt to forgo a stressful (unpredictable) journey and give birth in their own homes. I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t want to go into labor while riding a motorcycle, or propped on top a truck lorry loaded with Irish potatoes, either.

In the past months, my experiences traveling to the homes and gardens of around fifty women have been educational, not only in the sense of collecting their words and stories and perspectives, and capturing a small look at ‘what it means to be a women farmer in southwestern Uganda’ but also, unexpectedly, through the uncomfortable process of ‘getting to’ the places where their whole worlds are situated.

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Kato and Lilian and our ‘mighty’ motorcycle.

Usually, due to my humble budget for researching Small, that has involved, not a 4×4 vehicle, but aboda-boda motorcycle taxi, that’s crowded with three people – a seasoned, steadfast driver, Kato, my good friend and translator (and ever-adventurer) Lilian, and me. And that’s only the journey there.

On the journey back home to Kabale-town, we somehow have managed to strap on huge, bulging sacks of whatever the women farmers have sent us, their visitors, home with – Irish potatoes, peas, beans, gigantic heads of cabbage, and pineapples. (I’ve always been grateful they’ve never sent us home with live animals, like they do in some cultures, as adding a goat, sheep, or chicken to the load, I’m sure, would’ve been an entirely different experience to write home about).

Riding that motorcycle, together, the three of us have faced treacherous roads, through rain, or shine, and braved the distance, the bumps, the muddy stretches, the dust, and the traffic jams of cattle and goats. It’s true that these experiences of travel, much closer to the reality that women farmers face on a daily basis, have been equally as memorable as sitting across from them in their small homes, and recording the stories of their lives.

As they say – it’s not about the destination, it’s the journey getting there.

The Road More Traveled

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The road from Ibumba after the rains.

On that memorable day of my ‘motorcycle diaries’ – coming home from Ibumba, one of the villages where I’ve been working with women farmers, I felt the isolation, and the lack of options for safe, reliable transport, all too well. We watched the weather, all day, as the rain fell steadily, without reprieve, on the tin-roofs we huddled under. Kato, the driver, appeared nervous and kept glancing at his watch.

“We may have to stay the night,” Lilian warned me. “I know this rain.”

We weren’t prepared to stay the night, though, of course, women farmers are some of the most hospitable and generous people I’ve ever encountered. They would be happy, if not overjoyed, to have company for the night. But three of us were eager to get home, and we silently prayed the rains would stop and the roads would allow our passage.

Luck was on our side. The rain dissipated. Even the sun came out, and we felt warm for the first time that day. We prepared to leave, and all the women walked down to the roadside to say farewell. Mugendegye, they cried and waved. Go in peace.

I knew we would need their prayers on the journey home. We faced muddy stretches, where Lilian and I had to jump off, and let Kato navigate the motorcycle through the mess of a road. Mostly, I was worried we’d slip along the valley flats, and the bike would come crashing down on us.

“At least if we’re going slow, it’s not so bad to fall!” Lilian said, cheerfully.

Dear God – deliver us home without falling. I held my breath. I didn’t like the idea of falling, no matter how fast or slow we were going, and my leg getting pinned by the bike. My overactive imagination made me remember my cause, and my God.

In front of one of the many long muddy passings, I told Kato and Lilian:

“This is what Canadians would call, ‘hardcore’,” but as we surpassed the stretch, even worse parts along the road ahead confronted us, and I corrected myself, “No, actually this is what we’d call hardcore.’ I said that, maybe, three or four times.

With more luck, we made it through the horrendous mud of the valley flats. The road leading back up the hill was at least covered in rocks, which provided some traction against the fallen rain. As we moved, I felt confident that we’d now make it home.

A white 4×4 extended truck, brand new, with a World Vision logo on the side, zoomed by us on the long way up. The passengers looked comfortable and offered apologetic smiles. Though they, obviously, had no desire to get out and help us push.

“They don’t know what they’re missing!” I said jokingly to Lilian and Kato; as the motorcycle sputtered against the continuous incline. I felt, somehow, heroic of our journey home, despite the odds of the elements and our small, humble motorcycle.

But of course, I spoke too soon.

That’s when the chain broke, and we pulled off to the side of the steep hill, and I realized, there’s only one way up. So we pushed, the three of us, through streams of cows and goats, and as other motorcycles and the odd vehicle passed us by (their expressions showing amused confusion What’s a muzungu doing all the way out here, pushing a motorcycle?!) for nearly one hour, until we reached the top.

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The long walk of women farmers.

We had come back to the mist that we’d driven through that very morning, victorious, but in, admittedly, rough shape. With geography now on our side, we coasted down the hill on the bike, without the engine on, and passed groups of women farmers, carrying hand-hoes and bags of Irish potatoes on their heads and babies tied to their backs, leading goats. In the distance, and the vanishing light, they appeared like threadbare ghosts, walking barefoot. I recognized some of their faces. They were women from another village where we had conducted interviews. We exchanged tired smiles.

This, of course, was the story of their everyday lives – and their journey from their gardens to their homes (sometimes two to three hours) as I now knew, myself, was so much longer, and so much more difficult than my own journey ever would be.

Kato, Lilian, and I reached by 8 o’clock in pure darkness – no moon, no stars.

I was exhausted and sore, but grateful to be home, and jot down another humanizing experience in the accumulating pages of our ‘Motorcycle Diaries.’

-Trina

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