From the monthly archives:

July 2010

Northern Kenya

by Kate on July 26, 2010

Title: Nairobi to Moyale

Dates: 3rd to 11th July GPS:

Distance: 874km Total Distance: 18,960km

Roads: Hilly, tarmac to Archer’s Post; 400km of extremely rough and stony to Moyale

Weather: Cool at altitude, warm and dry in north Kenya

1a. On the wat to Nyahururu, fertile Rift ValleyFrom Kigali to Nairobi the expedition had been congested with many project and game park visits and not so much cycling. Setting off from Nakuru however was the start of the final 4500km/six week phase. It was going to be intensive cycling pretty much to the finish – and a few project visits. The first three days of the challenge were very up and down, starting with a long tallying climb – across the Equator once more – to Nyahururu (2350m). Everything and anything grows in the Rift Valley soils. I cycled passed coffee, tea and sugar plantations. I then headed east towards Mt Kenya via Nanyuki and around Africa’s second highest mountain to Isiolo. I somehow managed to pick up another stomach bug and my system had to endure gastro No.4 for the journey. Out of Nanyuki I climbed again for about 40km to 2800m. Here there were large farms growing cereal crops such as barley and tunnels of fresh cut flowers, grape vines and other fruit. We were surprised to see barley growing so well at such an altitude.

2b. Anna, Archer's Post SamburuThen came the best downhill of the journey so far – I dropped 1300m over the next 50km to enter Isiolo and a new world. We’d left behind the fertile highlands and entered a dry, dusty, rugged landscape with spectacular craggy ranges all round. The people were different too. Many more Muslims and mosques, many more nomads’ dwellings lining the road out of town, and much more begging than usual. Forty kilometres north of Isiolo, at Archer’s Post, we stayed with a group of Samburu people beside the river.

2d. With the Samburu ladies, Archer's PostSamburu are nomadic herders with many customs similar to the Maasi and Turkana people. They wear brightly coloured clothes and plenty of jewellery, herd cattle, sheep and goats and live off a diet of milk mixed with blood and meat (no vegetables). Most of the women dress traditionally every day, not just for showing tourists.

Like the Maasi we met, they are very proud of their cultures and traditions. The women had formed a group; the Meagari Early Childhood Group which seemed to be about ensuring their children’s education and future while empowering each other. The money we paid for camping beside their land and filming was divided amongst them. John also gave some pencils and notebooks which were gratefully received.

3a. On the new tarmac, just north of Archer's PostA young fellow named Robin took charge of organising us and explaining Samburu customs. He is part of the next generation – better educated and wanting to break away from the nomadic lifestyle. He explained that he has plans to build a guest house right beside the river. Now that the road has been paved, he says this is a great avenue for progress and he dreams of making a thriving business from passing travellers. Robin, his father and a couple of others kept watch over us all night beside a campfire, spear at the ready, to ensure our safety. Until recently, people had to travel in a convoy because of the threat of bandits. We’d heard about a motorcyclist who had had his spokes shot out a few months ago somewhere between Archer’s Post and Marsabit.

The great news for us was that Zdenek sent a message to say mission accomplished – he had the Ethiopian visas. What a relief that was for all of us. The whole episode had been absurd and expensive, but at least we had found a way. He was able to apply for and receive our visas in a day in Harare. Zdenek flew back to Nairobi and then took two buses to catch us in Laisamis the next night. We greeted him as a hero!

3b. Stunning mountain scenes just north of Archer's PostFrom Archer’s Post, I was fortunate to be able to coast along a further 65km of brand new tarmac. The scenery was superb with spectacular strips of ranges flanking the roadsides. There were many Samburu nomads milling around in the village at the end of the new tarmac.

4a. Samburu woman waiting for her food handout

4e. Delivering the food, mostly maizeThe World Food Program was distributing a monthly supply of food aid. This region was hit hard by drought last season and many of the nomads had lost all their animals – or at least most of them, which they rely on for their food and livelihood. This also explains why we had to endure so much begging out of Iliolo. The atmosphere was tense. People were on edge. Apparently 85% of the aid comes from the US, 5% from Japan and the rest from elsewhere, including Australia.

7c. Typical Samburu nomads' hutsI had a long discussion with one of the village leaders, Mark Rosket. He said that while the aid was much better than nothing, they need more than just maize. They need protein to sustain pregnant and lactating women and children. Maize is so different from their usual diet of blood, milk and meat. The chief explained that their priorities are: enough food to get them back on their feet, they need animals from which they can breed and get their herd numbers back up so they can maintain their normal life style and mostly they need to develop their education program.

As children are nomadic, it is difficult for them to receive education on the move and illiteracy is high. It is difficult to get teachers to embrace the lifestyle and travel with them. The chief said that education is the real priority as better educated people are more adaptable, have fewer healthier children and are better able to cope when they are faced with drought and other crises. There is a real problem with drunkardness in the community which contributes to the community problems.

6a. Typical stony road north of MarsabitReaching the boundary of Losai National Reserve also marked the end of any improved road. I had been expecting this shocking quality of road and feel fortunate that 100km of the 500km stretch is now good tarmac or gravel. It was a mixture of extremely deep corrugations and large loose stones. I could only average about 12 or 13km an hour on it and was shaken to bits. I did try trailblazing through the bush. There were some animal tracks and clay pans to follow, but overall it was no quicker. Even if it was more comfortable and interesting, the threat of punctures was high and it would only be a matter of time before pieces of the thorny bush penetrated my tyres. Eventually after landing in a thorn tree I decided to return to the main road.

5b. 600m deep crater, one of many around MarsabitBy the end of the day, chaffing was so bad I could barely touch the seat. I really struggled from Laisamis to Marsabit, the 100km took nearly eight hours! Marsabit is set on a volcanic mountain range, high above the plains I had been cycling over. In fact I had to climb almost a thousand metres over 50km to get there.

The next morning John contracted giardia and was feeling very ill. As soon as the pharmacist opened I bought the correct medication and John recovered very quickly. In fact he claimed it was the best dose of giardia he had ever had! In the past he had been sick for much longer. Zdenek and I spent the morning walking with local guide, Duba ( to visit a huge, 600m-deep volcanic crater. On the way he also showed us graves from World War II when the British and Italians battled in the region.

6b. Back to camel trains in the desertThe shocking road continued as I descended out of the mountains to the stony Chalbi Desert. The region is almost totally barren and devoid of trees, apart from the odd thorn tree. The plains are covered with volcanic rubble and the road was probably the worst stony surface I have ever had to cycle. There were no alternatives beside the main road. I did try, but it was hopeless. The desert is the realm of the nomads and I came across large flocks of fatty tailed sheep being driven along the road. There were many camels too and the odd camel train. We saw ostriches and groups of gazelle nearer to Marsabit. Hundreds of tiny ‘dic dic’ deer closer to Moyale.

8a. Working into the night. 10 hour day to arrive in MoyaleThe final day into Moyale at the Ethiopian border was massive – 10 hours for 145km. The road did improve from the horrific loose stone surface, but was still very heavy going and rough much of the time. The last hour was done in complete darkness with just the headlights to guide the way. It was probably fortunate I couldn’t see what was coming for the finale – a 700metre climb in the dark! I was knackered, but it was good to get to Moyale to watch the World Cup Final.

{ 1 comment }

Title: Over Hell's Track and inside Ruben's gates - Nairobi

Dates: 29th June to 2nd July GPS:

Distance: 23km Total Distance: 18,163km

Roads: Hilly in Hell’s Gate

Weather: Mild temperatures at altitude

1a. Setting off into Hell's Gate NPTo save time and having to cycle through Nairobi, we drove from Nakuru aiming to return to Nakuru to resume the cycle journey once we had done everything in Nairobi. On the way we stopped off at Hell’s Gate National Park, near Lake Navaisha. Hell’s Gate is one of the few national parks which allow cyclists as there are no man eaters there. I thought it would be a good team-building exercise and an opportunity to get some footage of cycling past some of the animals. We hired a couple of very inadequate bikes for Zdenek and MaryJane; John and I used our bikes of course. The plan was to take a couple of hours to cycle as a team around a 20km circuit. We’d assumed that the whole park would be easy for the average cyclist and set off along the Buffalo Track which turned out to be a rough 4WD track, inappropriate for normal cycling. 1b. Hell's Track!We pushed through sand and bulldust up a steep route for about 10km which MaryJane dubbed Hell’s Track – it was a baptism of fire for her – partaking in Breaking the Cycle was “breaking her will to cycle”. The positive was that the views were superb overlooking Lake Navaisha and surrounding mountains. Being a part of the Rift Valley there were a number of thermo power stations. Apparently steam rises out of the ground at about 300 degrees Celsius. After an equally rugged descent we joined up with the main track which bisects Hell’s Gate Gorge – the track which is suitable for cyclists! It was a stunning ride back to the main gate where we did see plenty of zebra, gazelles, giraffe and warthogs. From there we set off for Nairobi. The traffic was hopeless and we were late meeting our friends for dinner – Brendan, Grace, Matt and Jayden O’Brien.

One of the main reasons for diverting to Nairobi was to learn about the work of one of the expedition partners the 500 Supporters’ Group. While we didn’t manage to see everything, the project we did see at Ruben Slum gave a good snapshot. Ruben is a part of Mukuru Slums where approximately 1.25 million people live in a very small area. The slums are set in behind a large industrial area.

4a. Typical shopOur minibus turned off the paved road and on to a rough track lined with vendors selling just about everything – at a good price. The dried mud would be hopeless in the wet. Inside the compound, Matt introduced Zdenek and me to Brother Barry, the centre manager. The centre is run by the Christian Brothers (their organisation largely funds the programs along with the 500 Supporters’ Group and some other stakeholders). There are many initiatives in progress.

We concentrated on the health, education and microfinance loans. It appears the Kenyan government has placed Mukuru and other enormous slums such as Kibera in the too hard basket. No assistance is given for education, health, security or social development. The Ruben Centre provides a sanctuary for 1700 school children. They have about 80 students per class as it is and they have to turn people away. The health centre is the only facility of its kind in the slum – they deal with a huge number of people every day, but there are so many more that need attention.

2a. Nutritionist, Mary-Anne with malnutrition treatment sachetsBrother Barry and Matt showed us around the health clinic. We first met Mary-Anne, the nutritionist. Most commonly she treats malnutrition. Malnourished children are prescribed with special packets of powder fortified with high protein and high energy to ensure rapid weight gain. Next we met Sarah, the HIV/AIDS counsellor. Sarah said she became a counsellor after watching her uncle die of AIDS. There were so many stigmas and myths associated with his illness. He was outcast by society and not even family members were permitted to touch him for fear of contracting the disease. Sarah’s job is to educate and dispel the myths, encourage testing and counsel those who are HIV-positive.

2c. Head teacher, Scholastica OpiyoNext we met the head teacher of the school, Scholastica Opiyo. She has been running the school for 12 years and watched numbers grow until they are bursting at the seams. The 28 teachers are paid by the Christian Brothers organisation, again no help from the government. She says the children are always eager to learn and make the most of their opportunity. The lunch provided is often the students’ only meal of the day. Usually it is maize or beans.

2d. Feeding 1700 students with maizeParents are not required to pay school fees, but as a token gesture they are required to pay for the charcoal to cook the food. Even this small charge is a challenge some find difficult to meet. The kitchen was simply four huge vats of maize which was being steamed; almost ready for lunch when we looked in. Scholastica said that often children did not want to go home at the end of the day as the school environment was so much better than their home situations. She said it was often difficult to entice teachers to work in Ruben, but once they were employed, the enthusiasm of the students was a great motivator. Most teachers are committing for long periods of time.

The microloan system offers prospective business people a leg up. Peter, the manager explained that if someone wanted a loan, they would have to present in a group so that his/her colleagues would act as guarantors. The first loan offered is very small; 15,000 shillings or $200. This is usually enough to set up a small business. They pay 15% interest which must be paid back within three months. They are then permitted to apply for a second larger loan. There are four levels of microloans, the largest being 60,000 shillings.

3a. Open sewer and rubbish in the streetHaving learned about many of the services provided on the premises, it was time to venture in to the slum. Brother Barry and community workers, Rose and Phaustine led the way. A security person followed just in case there was an issue. Barry said that in daylight hours, there should not be a problem, but at night it was an unsafe place. The first thing that struck me was the stench. It smelt like a sceptic tank. There were open channels of sewerage running down the streets and rubbish carpeting the dusty and muddy streets. It was a case of treading very carefully much of the time. The streets were lined with small corrugated iron dwellings and shops.

3b. Typical streetMost of the building was such that the floor levels were below the level of the street. This means that when it rains, water flows into the houses and shops – water that has washed over the open sewers – making living rooms a health hazard. There were kids everywhere, playing in the streets, following us around. I felt like the Pied Piper. Many people were busy with whatever they were doing; mostly trading. Barry explained that unemployment was one of the biggest issues and that the young men we saw hanging around the street corners and playing pool were the cause of many problems at night.

We were being led to the tiny home of Mary Makhwana who had recently been diagnosed with tuberculosis and AIDS. Rose and Phaustine had been looking after Mary, ensuring she received medical treatment and also helping her with a plan to move forward. Mary has five children. The youngest sat with me on the couch. She, like many slum dwellers, had been attracted to the potential opportunities of the big city from the country.

6a. With Mary Makhwana who has TB and AIDS

6b. With Mary and her youngest childWith work not forthcoming she ended up ‘trapped’ in the slum with an insignificant income and rent to pay on her little corrugated iron shack. Once she fell ill she was unable to work and has hit rock bottom. She was feeling better now that she has access to the right medication and Rose and Phaustine are trying to organise for her to return to her village in the country. There she can get family support and her children could have a better future too.

7a. Wilson has developed 3 businesses from micro-finance loansBarry, Rose and Phaustine then introduced us to Wilson, a young businessman who has benefitted from three microloans. With the money he has set up a shop, small hotel and is now looking to buy a vehicle with the profits (he makes 6000 shillings a week) and set up a small courier business. Wilson was very proud of what he has created from the loans, foresight and some hard work.

8b. Signing the school visitors' registerAs mentioned there are other interesting projects to which the 500 Supporters’ Group contributes which are making a difference to education, health and social welfare in urban environments. The population density and living conditions are so cramped that people have no space to grow and provide food for themselves and little opportunity for work. I thank Matt and Brendan in particular for arranging our visit, especially when they had their own hectic schedules to further develop these initiatives and new partnerships.


The other main reason for visiting Nairobi was to attain our Ethiopian visas. When I started the journey, obtaining an Ethiopian visa was possible at the border but for some reason, and without warning, they had changed the rules. We’d heard they weren’t issuing them from Nairobi or on the border in advance and had tried to no avail in Kampala. I managed to get a letter of invitation from an Ethiopian travel company and had even written a letter to the Ministry of Tourism, but the day we spent at the embassy in Nairobi was wasted. No reason was given.

There are no problems for people travelling overland from Sudan or flying in, so the reason was not for security. We then heard that a tour group had sent a representative down to the embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe and successfully collected twenty visas. It seemed to be our only option to send Zdenek down to Harare to apply for visas while I restarted the journey from Nakuru. A ridiculous waste of time and money but it was the only way, otherwise it would totally mess up the schedule.

John and I resumed the journey from Nakuru, heading to Nyahuruhu, Kenya’s highest major town. We just had to hope that Zdenek would be successful and then catch us on the road through northern Kenya.

{ 1 comment }

A Lion’s Roar … and much more

by Kate on July 16, 2010

Title: Kampala to Nakuru (Kenya)

Dates: 22nd to 28th June GPS:

Distance: 334km Total Distance: 18,140km

Roads: Cooler, afternoon thunderstorms in Kenyan highlands; warmer on the savannah

Weather: Busy highway; altitude 2000m – 2800m

1a. A balanced diet!Rather than staying in busy Kampala, we found a great place to spend a couple of nights in Entebbe at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre, beside Lake Victoria and near the airport. The centre has an important role in rescuing animals from smugglers and those at risk of being poached. The animals appear perfectly happy in their spacious, leafy habitats. It’s incredible to be awoken by a lion’s roar in the morning. Animals are rehabilitated and then usually moved on to other sanctuaries such as the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, featured in the previous blog. The money we spent there goes into helping maintain the centre. Before heading off we did a half day trip out to Ngamba Island on Lake Victoria to visit the Chimpanzee Sanctuary. The sanctuary was set up in 1998 to care for chimps after being confiscated by the Uganda Wildlife Authority from poachers and traders. Every year in Africa, approximately 5000 chimps are killed by poachers for the bush-meat trade. As a product of this illegal practice, dozens of infant chimps are taken alive from the forest, bound for the pet trade throughout the world.

1a Ranger explains about smugglingAfter a pleasant 45 minute boat ride, we arrived at the island and were greeted by our ranger/guide. All 44 chimps on the island are cared for physically and emotionally; helping them overcome their traumas and reintegrating them with other chimps. Some may one day return to the wild, but most are there for the long stay – they will never make it back. The chimps are fed four times a day on a variety of fruit and vegetables. They receive medical care, security and social companionship – some struggle with the latter due to their prior mistreatment. Our main entertainment for the morning was, however the 11am feeding time. Chimps appeared out of the forest ready to be thrown all sorts of fruit. The ranger knew them all by name and could tell us about each personality. It was interesting to watch their behaviour; some were happy with their fair share, others raced around gathering as much as they could eat and carry, others were hoarders, stockpiling their stash in a quiet place and guarding it. All too soon, feeding time was over and we were back on the boat heading for Entebbe to then drive back to the point where I had stopped cycling a few days before.

1g. Taking refuge from the rain and hailNot much cycling again in this section; just two and a half days from near the Uganda/Kenya border to Nakuru. It would have been inappropriate to travel through Kenya and not see any of the wildlife. I kept the cycle route simple – straight down, or should I say up the main road through Eldoret to Nakuru and Nairobi. There was an awful lot of climbing over the next day and a half to reach 2800m before dropping down towards Nakuru (1800m). Thunderstorms bubbled up in the afternoon. They were very localised. The first afternoon I had to cycle straight through the storm epicentre. As the freezing cold rain turned into hail I took refuge in shelter of a tiny church. Schoolgirls from next door braved the downpour to join me. They could speak perfect English and were intrigued with my cameras.

2a. Kenana knittersJohn arranged for us to stay at Kembu Campsite on Kenana Farm, about 30km out of Nakuru. The 900-acre farm and campsite is owned by the Nightingales, an old white Kenyan family. They employ over 200 people and really do give a lot back to the local community. All the staff with whom we dealt seemed happy and obviously earned well. Also on the farm Paddy Nightingale has set up Kenana Knitters. This is a brilliant initiative which all started roughly twenty years ago from a discussion two people had under a tree and a good idea. Kenana Knitters became a business entity twelve years ago. Since then Paddy has gradually built it up and now has 300 knitters on her books.

2b. Dying the wool, Kenana KnittersWomen from the local community elect to sign up to earn extra income for the family. Once their quality is up to standard they nominate to produce as much or as little as they can guarantee to complete on time. Knitting is a very practical craft that they can mostly do at home around all their usual chores and family commitments. Paddy and her small management team have developed international markets. They are careful to only take on orders which they know they can fulfil at the right quality and on time. The wool is sourced from local markets – Kenya is the first African country where I have seen sheep bred for their wool. (Everywhere else sheep look much more like goats, or they are the Damara sheep in Namibia which don’t require shearing) The wool is spun and dyed with natural dyes made from dahlias, red cabbage and native trees. Everything must be organic (except the acrylic filler for toys which is a compromise, allowing them to be washed more easily).

The knitting workshop has become a centre of the community; a place where women receive social support, medical services and develop camaraderie with other women out of their usual hardworking home environment. Paddy said the women earn a little more than their husbands! She has provided a facility for women to save small amounts of money so there is something in the kitty if a child is sick, or extra is needed to pay the school fees. Usually their husbands would demand that they hand over all their earnings which would then be used up rather than saved. There is a health clinic and free HIV/AIDS testing service which is discrete for the women to use as well as free counselling and support.

Paddy was asked if she could set up a similar project in Darfur by some Americans – in three months! She had to say no because while she could set it up, and it would ‘look good; ticking all the right boxes’ it would not be sustainable. Maintaining Kenana Knitters requires continual support, finding new markets and understanding the women’s needs and culture. Three months is not enough time to establish the skills or find appropriate managers to continue the trade. Being born and bred in Kenya herself makes a huge difference.

We used Kembu as a base while we were in central Kenya. From there we drove for seven hours to the Maasi Mara National Park. It isn’t that far but the scenic shortcut through the highlands was very rough. Once we dropped down from the high altitude to Narok, the vegetation changed dramatically, from lush fertile, ‘grow anything’ pastures to dry, spiky sclerophyllous acacia scrubland. We stayed at the Riverside Campsite near the Talek Gate entrance which was run by a couple of Maasi fellows. It was basic, but perfectly adequate. They kept watch around the clock; keeping dangerous animals away at night and the baboons away from our gear during the day.

6c. With our guide, Amos spotting gameWe employed one of the Maasi, Amos as our guide for the day. This proved to be a very worthwhile investment. Amos was very knowledgeable, spoke good English and worked hard all day to find out where the animals were. All the guides communicate using text messages to let each other know where the main animals are. It was rather a novelty having a traditionally dressed Maasi next to me in the back seat of the LandRover – I just had to be careful not to sit on his knife which was strapped to his side. We were incredibly lucky to see so much in one day.

We had popped into the park for a couple of hours the previous evening and had seen a leopard’s kill hanging in a tree, but no leopard. First thing the next morning we decided to revisit the site in the hope it might still be there. It was! The leopard was having the young wildebeest for breakfast. We watched for about half an hour. What strength and balance it must have to haul such a large animal up a tree. (Unfortunately I didn’t get a decent photo, so you’ll have to imagine this as if it was straight out of a National Geographic documentary!)

5a. Wilderbeest on the moveThe famous wildebeest migration had started early this year. Millions of wildebeests migrate annually from the Serengeti Plains (which back on to the Maasi Mara) to the Maasi Mara in search of rich pastures. The migration was not yet in full swing, but the western plains of the Maasi Mara were still densely populated with tens of thousands of wildebeest.

6b. Amos and Zdenek at workAmos directed us to a high viewpoint where we could look over the lines of wildebeest moving across the plains and the meandering Mara River. Zebras also move with the wildebeest – they make good partners because wildebeest have poor eyesight and it is safety in numbers for the zebra. There were many other herbivores too – elephants, topi, impala, Thompson’s gazelles, giraffes… John made porridge for breakfast at our vantage point while Amos planned our next move. On the far side of the Mara river he could see a few cars gathering – what were they watching?

9a. Cheetahs, the animals I most wanted to seeWe crossed over the river to the far western edge of the park to find a family of cheetahs resting under a cotton tree – wow – the cheetah was the animal I most wanted to see and there were two adults and two teenage cubs about 15 metres away. Cheetahs are very sensitive animals and so it was great to see a warden there directing the traffic, ensuring people remained a respectful distance. He would allow one vehicle at a time to get a good look for five minutes then move on. We’d already seen many vehicles doing the wrong thing – driving through a herd of zebras, driving off the tracks, putting unnecessary pressure on the wildlife. A few of the Kenyans I spoke to say the Maasi Mara is under threat because of overuse. People pressure is destroying the animals. There are big problems in the Serengeti too. The Tanzanian government has just given the go ahead for the track which bisects the park to be bituminised. This will mean heavy traffic disturbing the animals’ sanctuary, even destroying the wildebeest migration.

7b. Hippo in Mara RiverBack at the Mara Bridge we stopped for lunch. There a ranger gave us a free guided walk along the riverbank. He was carrying a gun just in case something went wrong. The river was heavily populated with hippos and crocodiles. He took us to one of the main wildebeest crossings. Being early in the season, there weren’t any running at the time, but a few dead beests were washed up on the rocks and beaches. We moved on in search of lions, heading west. On the way we saw elephants, buffalo, hyenas, giraffes and more herbivores.

11c.Finally Amos made a spot beside a dry creek. There were two pairs of lions – and about 15 vehicles lined up! Amos knew the lions were brothers and that both pairs were courting. This time there were no wardens to control the traffic, but the lions just ignored the chaos completely. We watched and waited patiently. Slowly the vehicles disappeared, roaring off to their lodges for the evening. In the end, there were just two vehicles. We watched one pair from just five metres. I couldn’t believe our luck. In one day we’d seen a leopard, four cheetahs, four lions and an impressive array of animals. Amos had done a great job and so there was plenty to talk about around the campfire that evening with our Maasi friends.

12a. Our Maasi friends who took care of our camp

The drive back to Kembu took all of the next day. From there we set off to Nairobi for the next project visit and to try to sort out our Ethiopian visas.


From Grower to Sewer

by Kate on July 8, 2010

Title: Masaka to Kenyan border; diversion to Gulu

Dates: 15th to 19th June GPS:

Distance: 359km Total Distance: 17,806km

Roads: Very busy, especially around Kampala. Hilly between Kampala and Jinja

Weather: Comfortable, warm, cool nights

1a. The dusty Equator (due to roadworksThe cycle from Kinoni to Kampala ended up being a marathon day. It started out as a routine ride into Masaka and up the main road which runs parallel to the shores of Lake Victoria (even though the lake was not in view all day). There was about 30km of particularly unpleasant cycling through road works where I was constantly doused with choking dust. The Equator monument was enshrouded too. Nearing Kampala the road was certainly not built for the heavy traffic and I was constantly forced over the broken edges and into the gravel. I had to remain extremely alert and aware of what was coming behind me – usually very fast. I stuck at it and reached the city after 150km, just in time for peak hour traffic. Right as I was tiring, the awareness needed to be most acute. Road works stifled our route plan and by the time we found our way into the city centre I’d clocked 170km – the last hour in the dark. We’d reached Kampala two days ahead of schedule. We had dates to keep; John’s girlfriend MaryJane was due to fly in on the 18th and the following day we needed to drive to Gulu for the next project visit. So to make use of the time I cycled a couple more days to near the Kenyan border.

2b. The mighty Nile RiverWorking my way through shocking traffic out of Kampala along the Jinja Road I was thinking that if the conundrum of minibuses, heavy trucks, motorbikes and cars didn’t kill me, the fumes would. There are no emissions laws here. My eyes were streaming. I passed through some huge tea, sugar cane and rice plantations around the top of Lake Victoria. We camped beside the Nile River, just up from the source of the mighty river where it flows out of Lake Victoria. After Jinja the road opened out making cycling more pleasant.

We just managed to return to Kampala and Entebbe in time for John to meet MaryJane at the airport. It was great to have MaryJane join us for the two weeks from Kampala to Nairobi.

Throughout the expedition I have been wearing organic cotton t-shirts provided by a sustainable trade company called Edun Live, a sister brand of Edun Apparel. Edun was started by Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson. Garments are made in Sub-Saharan Africa from grower to sewer. The reason for our 370km diversion to Gulu in Northern Uganda was to see where the cotton is produced, meet the farmers and learn how growing organic cotton as a cash crop is transforming many communities.

3. John Tembo with organic bags and spray equipmentIt took the best part of a day to reach Gulu. On arrival John Tembo, Project Manager and Agronomist for the Cotton Conservation Initiative of Uganda (CCIU) was waiting to greet us. CCIU was established by Edun and the US-based NGO, Invisible Children (IC). CCIU started under an initiative of IC; profits from Edun Live’s t-shirt sales are funding the project. The aim of CCIU is to contribute to the economic development and resettlement of northern Uganda, in Gulu & Amuru Districts, by providing a financially viable farming alternative to people returning from Internally Displace Peoples Camps to their villages of origin before the insurgency of the Lord’s Resistance Army. John joined us for dinner so we were able to learn about more CCIU and discuss plans for the next day.

Some background as to why this region was selected (other than that it is a good cotton producing area). Since the peace talks that started in June 2006 (after nearly 20 years of war), northern Uganda has enjoyed increasing peace. This has allowed people to return to their original villages and land, and begin to rebuild their lives. However, they are returning to land that has not been tilled for 15 years and more, to places that have no economic activity and opportunities. A large percentage of the returnees are below the age of 20. They have never engaged in agriculture before, having been recipients of food aid and other handouts. They do not have the motivation nor know-how to take their future lives as rural farmers in their own hands, and tend to drift into being unproductive, idling away their days in trading centres. Secondly, since the demise of the cooperative movement and unions under the full privatization and liberalization of the agricultural commodities sector, the smallholder farmer producing cash crops has always been victim of unscrupulous agents and unnecessary middlemen, realizing only a fraction of the true value of his crop. CCIU is cutting out the middlemen and developing a value-added chain so that the garments are produced entirely in Uganda and maximum benefits are returned to the small producers.

Our tour began in the office – CCIU’s nerve centre which also happens to be John’s house. We were introduced to the small number of staff who were still working hard on a Saturday morning. The shelves were stacked with files. Every farmer completes forms detailing the various crops they grow and sprays used in the past. Typically farmers will own up to eight acres on which they will grow their staple foods (maize, cassava, vegetables) and a cash crop – organic cotton. All data is then transferred to soft copy which is presented to the international governing bodies. To be certified as 100% organic there are stringent standards, rules and procedures. The governing bodies regularly check a random selection of producers. CCIU is expanding rapidly. Last year they started with 1000 farmers signing MOUs; this year there are 3500 farmers involved and John says that they will have around 8000 members recruited and committed next year. All farmers receive training; farm leaders are responsible for teaching on average, about 30 of their peers. Each member receives a calendar detailing planting dates and information about farm management, fertility enhancement, pest control and crop rotation. Every group has a committee with a president, secretary and treasurer. CCIU provide training and basic equipment to ensure each group know how to run a committee, meetings and can record what is decided. Group leaders communicate with field officers who in turn answer to two are coordinators who then answer to John and Claude Auberson (Project Director).

3a. At the ginnery, cotton lint ready to compress into bales, GuluOur first stop was the ginnery in Gulu. Once the cotton is harvested it is sent to the ginnery where the lint is separated from the seed. The factory we saw wasn’t actually organic certified and so is not used by CCUI – it was just to see an example. CCIU are planning very soon to introduce mini-gins which can be operated by the farmers. This is another way they intend to cut out the middleman. Cotton seed itself has a lot of value, normally exploited by the ginnery. Profits from seed products such as oil, soap and animal fodder for example, will soon be received by the growers.

4c. Head teacher at Keyo Secondary School explains why they have very few girls attending secondary educationNext we set off along the road, now a rough unsealed road, which if we kept going we’d end up at the Sudanese border. CCIU have set up demonstration plots at secondary schools so that students can learn how to produce organic cotton. The first school we visited, Sacred Heart Girl’s School – which had a reputation as one of the best in the region – was also where the first girls were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army. By targeting this school the LRA were intending to maximise their statement of intent, inciting shock and fear in the society. Girls were raped, sold as wives, desensitised and forced to live in the bush as child soldiers.

4b. With head groundsman, demonstration plotWe met the head groundsman, who offers his skills and expertise at a minimal wage, to teach the girls new skills in cotton farming. The seeds had just been planted, so there wasn’t much in the way of cotton crops to see. As we returned through the school he explained that they are in the process of building a substantial wall around the grounds to protect the girls. We visited another school with a demonstration plot – Keyo Secondary School. The head teacher explained that many of the students are badly scarred from the horrors of the war and receive counselling. Two thirds of the students are boys he explained, mostly due to early pregnancies. Life in the IDP camps is not healthy for them – not much to do, living very close to one another, poor levels of education in the generation above. The head teacher and agricultural teacher said that the cotton plot not only empowers the students, the wider community is becoming involved.

5e. Farmers at the meetingOur final destination on the tour involved a bumpy ride off the main road to meet a group of farmers. We were a little late and they had been waiting patiently for us. The women gave us a warm traditional welcome. I felt honoured by their dancing and singing and thanked them. These people had only returned to their land in the last three years (I think). Prior to this these 50 farmers had existed in the IDP camps, depending on hand outs.

6a. Until recently these people lived off hand outs (during the war)I noticed one of the doors was entirely made of rolled out old food tins from the World Food Program. We sat under a tree and John Tembo led the discussion – interpreted by the area coordinator. When he explained that the t-shirt that I was wearing had been produced from last year’s crop, I could see their eyes light up. I added that my t-shirt was coming home – I think they liked that one too. I doubt they get to see the end product very often.

6b. Profits are commonly used to pay for the children's educationWhen I asked what they used the money from the cash crop for, most replied that it was to pay for education. There were equal numbers of men and women farmers who all have an equal say in proceedings. The lead farmer in this village was a woman. Overall they seemed a very happy, motivated group. It didn’t take much to make them laugh (as you can see from the photos). Most planned to increase the size of their cotton crops next year.

The organic cotton as a cash crop really helps these communities become more resilient. Before they would have just produced enough food to eat, perhaps selling any excess at a local market. It was very much a hand to mouth existence. If there was a crop failure, children wouldn’t go to school (if they could afford it in the first place) and/or they would go hungry. Now they are learning how to put money away and plan for the future. Organic cotton attracts 25% above the market value. Once the cotton is set up as the organic cash crop, they also aim to produce other organic crops such as chilli and sesame oil. The whole program aims to become self-sustaining by 2013.

Later that afternoon John organised for us to meet Andrew Morgan and Jessica from Invisible Children as they are obviously the other key stakeholder in this partnership. Invisible Children has been working in northern Uganda for the past six years and has played an integral role in the peace and recovery of the region. IC’s work has been featured on CNN International, Larry King, Oprah and has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2008 Ugandan North American Association Service Award, for its work in education and economic development. Most of IC’s fundraising is done by school students in the US. They also provide scholarships for exceptional students in the region who are in vulnerable situations. Jessica took the time to explain in detail exactly what IC do – they really do a fantastic job.

We had a very interesting time in Gulu and it was wonderful to see where my t-shirts were made and how the producers were benefitting from CCUI’s work. John and Claude arranged for us to visit the factory in Kampala where the t-shirts are produced.

7a. Taleo, the dominant male at Ziwa Rhino SanctuaryWe broke up the long drive back to Kampala with a visit to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. Due to civil unrest in the 70s, rhinos were poached to extinction – the last Rhino was seen in Uganda in 1983. Today rhino horns fetch a high price on world markets where they are sold mostly for Traditional Chinese medicines as well as dagger handles in Yemen. The aim of the Ziwa Sanctuary is to breed white and black rhinos and reintroduce them back into their original habitat, most likely in Murchison Falls National Park. Four white rhinos were transferred from Kenya in 2005. Two more were donated by Disney Animal Kingdom in Florida. The founding three males and three females have produced three calves in the last year.

7b. Mother with baby ObamaThe firstborn named Obama as he has a Kenyan father and an American mother. The sanctuary employs gamekeepers to protect the rhinos around the clock. They also work as guides so visitors like us can track them on foot. It didn’t take long for us to find them. There’s something very special about being just a few metres away from the two tonne animals. By staying in the sanctuary and dining on their high quality meals, our funds were directly supporting the sanctuary.

8f.Back in Kampala we drove straight to Phenix Logistics, the factory with produces organic cotton garments for Edun as well as a number of other companies. Innocent, the Phenix project manager showed us around. They receive cotton bales branded with information which tells them exactly who produced to cotton and when and where it was ginned. Cotton from CCIU’s farmers is only used for Edun’s t-shirts and the pedigree will prove it. It has to be this way to receive the 100% organic cotton label. Innocent took us right through the process, from where the cotton has to be manually relaxed from the compressed bales to the final garments. It was fascinating to see the precise ‘clever’ machinery working. There are many processes involved in making the yarn right through to knitting the material, dying, sewing and screen printing. Phenix provides work for 300 employees. They have just received their fair trade certification that ensures they have their staff’s welfare at heart.

Having witnessed the whole grower to sewer process I can see that the Gulu farmers are really reaping the benefits. Passionate people are using their expertise to ensure that maximum value is received for their work. Communities are becoming more resilient and better educated.

8h. A brand new Edun tee shirt


HUGs All Round

by Kate on July 2, 2010

Title: Kigali to Lubanda (near Masaka)

Dates: 11th to 14th June GPS:

Distance: 379km Total Distance: 17,447km

Roads: Very hilly most of the way; tarmac apart from Lake Bunyoni Road

Weather: Comfortable, mid-high 20s, head and cross winds from south east

1b. Lake Bunyoni next morningFrom Kigale it was a pretty straight forward ride along the main road, up through a stunning valley, over a pass and into Uganda, country number 17 of the journey. At Kabale, 20km into Uganda, we made a short diversion to stay at Lake Bunyoni. It was a seriously steep ride at the end of a long day up to the lip of the ancient crater lake, but the view well worth it. Kalebus Camp beside Lake Bunyoni was a terrific place to stay; great food and so tranquil in the morning. 2c. No health and safety measures hereReturning to Kabale the next day however, one scene was quite a contrast. We stopped to have a closer look at a quarry and meet some of the workers. All generations were represented in the demographics; grandmothers, mothers, fathers, sons, children…and there were certainly no safety precautions in place. We watched women pushing gravel over the cliff face, perched in precarious positions – no harnesses, no shoes, no protection. Men broke rocks with sledge hammers and crow bars, women and children cracked smaller lumps of gravel. I read in a Ugandan newspaper that the wages earned by women nursery workers (picking flowers) was usually about $US1.20 per day, rising to $US1.50 after a year of service. I doubt these quarry workers were getting that. We’d just paid about $50 for four of us for camping, dinner and breakfast on the other side of the hill, yet here it would take a labourer more than a month to earn that amount.

2b. Learning a hard life, making building aggregate

From Kabale I pedalled over some huge hills, a high plain and then more (smaller) hills; through Mbarara to reach the small market town of Kinoni, 20km from Masaka. At Kinoni we turned off to a small village called Lubanda to meet Helen Brown and learn about her HUG Project.

4a. Discussing HUG projects with HelenHelen first contacted me in response to an article in The Age newspaper in Melbourne. We very soon realised that we were on the same page with regard to the theme and purpose of our initiatives. Helen invited me to visit her project in Uganda. HUG stands for Help Us Grow. The not-for-profit organisation was set up by Helen and David Ssemwogerere. Helen and David’s paths crossed when Helen first visited Uganda to take part in another educational program. She had felt that there was a division between the organisation that she was working for and the Ugandan people whom she was teaching. HUG was set up by Helen and David to develop relationships between community members and volunteers so that both cultures learn from each other; two way relationships where the benefits go both ways to develop community spirit and resilience. As we arrived, Helen and David had just returned themselves from Kampala with a family of volunteers – the Tomaino family from Melbourne who were on their first trip to Africa.

4c. These two women have pooled their resources to produce mushrooms more time-efficiently and more profitA surprise was in store as a group of about twenty women from the Lubanda community performed a traditional welcome for us. It was very special. Helen said that when they started 18 months ago, these women would not have had the self-confidence to give such a performance. Helen and David are reviving self-esteem and facilitating empowerment for a better, sustainable future. There are no huge budgets and no new LandCruisers here. This is a small grassroots organisation where initiatives are based on knowledge and skills transfer, community needs, simplicity and positive encouragement at a pace which suits the lifestyle. Volunteers become part of the community and learn just as much from the locals. The idea is to harness volunteers’ skills and put them to use in the various programs. Everyone gets something different out of HUG. The motivation comes from within. There are no hand outs here. Seeds, mushroom spore and animals are provided as loans to be repaid and certain commitments are required. We spent a very relaxed and interesting day with Helen, David and the volunteers looking at some of their initiatives in Lubanda and in the new Suubi Education Centre.

4b. Mushroom project - Sarah is one of the most successful participantsAfter breakfast in the Suubi Centre we set off on a walking tour of some of the projects around the village. Firstly we had a look at their mushroom project. Initially six women were sent to Kabale to learn how to grow them. They in turn trained another group of ten women who were willing to make the commitment. Before being loaned the spores they had to build a mushroom house, usually out of mud, with a dark and a light room. The spores were repaid to provide the next group of women with an opportunity. They had to learn how to process and dry the mushrooms before they were sold to the guaranteed export market in Kabale. Their success provides extra income and they learn how to manage their savings as well as business skills.

5b The next generation of piglets will provide more families with opportunitiesNext was the piglet project. Again very simple, but effective. Australians have donated piglets for Christmas. Instead of giving someone a present, they give a voucher saying they have donated a pig to a specific person in Lubanda (or surrounding villages). When the sows produce, the recipient has to agree to give two piglets from their first litter to another two people. They then have to make the same commitment. We met Babirye, one of the first recipients. Babiyre showed us her very large sow of which she was very proud.

6a. Local primary school has been partnered by a school in Melbourne who has provided a water tank and gardening tools

6c. David and the head teacher - the  vegetable garden provides a micro-economy and doubles as an outdoor laboratory  for the schoolBright Light Primary School was the final stop on the tour. Here Helen and David have helped the head teacher develop the school garden. The head teacher was sent to Jinja to take part in a training course. There he learned about fertilizing, mulching, growing different types of vegetables and fruit – many not normally grown in the limited traditional vegetable gardens. The diet around these parts would normally be maize, cassava, tomatoes, bananas, onions, some local greens (can’t remember the name) and not much else. The garden was impressive and the head teacher seemed very pleased with it. Some of the produce is used for the children’s meals and the rest is sold to create an income to buy in the staple foods – maize and beans. The garden isn’t big enough to provide all 600-odd students with food all year round. The garden is also an outdoor laboratory providing a medium for learning across a number of subjects from mathematics to health, agriculture and science. It is intended that what they learn at school is practiced at home. The primary school has also benefitted from the donation of an Australian school which raised enough money to provide a rainwater tank and gardening tools. Another very appropriate partnership where both sides learn and grow.

Helen says they try to match up people’s interests. Musicians give drums and other instruments for example. They organise and encourage sports, music and drama events to develop confidence and reconnect with skills they have traditionally been good at. Uganda has had a tough time in recent history due to the regimes of cruel, oppressive dictators such as Idi Amin and his successor in the 70s and early 80s. There was a major conflict with Tanzania which would have affected this region. People here aren’t suffering from extreme poverty anymore, but HUG is helping people move out of a vulnerable zone to become more resilient and better able to cope with hard times. All around, the villagers look happy and healthy.

9a. Needlework classes - women learning new skills ay the Suubi Education CentreBack at the Suubi Centre we watched a sewing class. Many women have never developed skills such as drawing, cutting and needlework. Skills were being taught from scratch and both local women and volunteer teachers (like Jan and Sue) were gaining much out of their roles.

10b. Young adults learning computer skills at SuubiMusicians and dancers were practicing for the World Environment Day celebrations (which took place last week and by all reports was a great success) and a computer class was in progress for adult business people. The demonstration garden beside the Suubi Centre is where farmers learn to produce higher yielding crops, using better varieties. Positive results are proof enough for locals to adopt new techniques and encourage learning. There are plans to do more for the men in the community, but this is a young organisation and Helen said they need to ensure each project is up, running and self-sustaining before they introduce more ideas. There are also plans for a health centre.

The women cooked our meals using home grown produce. Initially they had problems with quantity, and the timing of meals, but now they are able to plan and cook great local dishes so that they are ready on time.

8b. Robert, Christian, Lucynda and Nevine -  families learning from each otherSpending a day (and two nights) at Suubi was like staying with one big friendly family. Everyone chipped in and seemed to be having a great time. It was refreshing to watch the reactions of the Tomaino family – straight out of comfortable Melbourne to rural Uganda. There are no Play Stations or televisions here, but Lucynda and Christian seemed to be fully engaged with the local kids and being a part of what was going on. The Tomainos were just there for two weeks, however retired volunteers such as Terry, Sue and Jan could stay for much longer and had different sets of skills to contribute. Helen mentioned that she is looking to encourage the corporate world to get involved in similar ways to the present volunteers but paying more for their stay in the banda accommodation and combining this with some sightseeing in Uganda.

The following day, we all lined up below the new Suubi sign for some photos. All too soon it was time to go. David dropped me off back in Kinoni and I set off on one very long day to Kampala.

To find out more about HUG please visit