Disaster on Kaabong Highway, Part 1

Karamoja: Nomads and Open Spaces

Karamoja: Nomads and Open Spaces

One of the first words of advice I got before moving to Uganda was “if you get sick or injured, don’t go to the government hospital—that’s only where people go to die.”

After 3 years, I finally got to see what they meant.

The events that follow pretty much explain Africa, both the tragedy and promise of the place.  You don’t have to go to an ebola affected country to know what it’s like trying to treat illness and injury in an African health care system.  This is a long story, so I’ll post it in multiple parts.  Check back over the following days for each segment.

It started well enough.  BBOXX, the solar company I’ve been working for since July 2013, had won a contract to install solar systems at 7 schools in Karamoja for the NGO War Child UK.  Karamoja is the most remote and undeveloped region of Uganda.  Located in the extreme northeast of the country, its main towns are at minimum a 10 hour drive from the capital, mostly due to bad roads – the journey would take 4 hours in the USA.  Its people, the Karamojong, are traditionally warlike nomadic agro-pastoralists who wear plaid blankets like the more famous Maasai, or else wear nothing at all, and live off their cattle: their staple food is a porridge of cow blood mixed with milk, their marriage dowries are paid in cows, and their disputes are settled by violent cattle raids.  These  raids spiraled into out of control violence in the 70s and 80s after the Karamojong got their hands on the Uganda army’s armoury and switched from spears to guns.  Even Joseph Kony feared the Karamojong and did not bring his Lord’s Resistance Army there.  Karamoja is stable now—the Ugandan government brutally disarmed the Karamojong several years ago—but Peace Corps still is not allowed in Karamoja.

So nowadays you didn’t have to fear guns, only cars.

The lifeblood of the Karamojong

Cattle: the lifeblood of the Karamojong

Sorghum fermenting to make local brew - the OTHER lifeblood of the Karamojong

Sorghum fermenting to make local brew: the other lifeblood of the Karamojong

Jolly Kasango is one of our staff members in Kampala, sort of a jack of all trades.  He manages the warehouse, sells to distributors, delivers products, runs errands, and can even do installations.  He’s an honest guy who laughs often, doesn’t inflate his receipts to claim extra money, and always greets me as “Mr. Andrew”.  The sort of guy you trust with $40,000 of stock alone in the African bush.

So naturally, when it came time to ship our solar panels, batteries, lights, a nd other accessories to Karamoja, we chose Jolly to accompany the stock.  Jolly left on a Sunday, and the installation team of 4 more people drove up two days later in a mid-90s Toyota Corolla owned by the chief installer, David Sekandi.

This was in mid-March.

I was to travel up once they were almost finished to inspect the work and sign warranty contracts with all the schools.  The warranty contracts were important.  See, you run across a lot of solar installations throughout the poorer parts of a country like Uganda, nearly all of them put there by NGOs and donor agencies.  Most of these solar systems are expensive and professionally installed… but don’t work anymore, because the people they were given to either don’t know how to maintain them, or are so used to being given free things that they don’t even want to spend $3.50 replacing a light bulb.  And so you hear over and over again, “ah yes this solar was given to us some years ago, but for 6 months now it is not working.”

Our BBOXX solar systems would not suffer such a fate.  To that end, BBOXX and War Child UK had agreed on an extended 3-year warranty to ensure that the systems would work for a long time.  I was just going to sign a warranty agreement with each of the schools.

I left on a Tuesday in our beloved BBOXX RAV4, “Bella”.  She’s a great little car, and has been all over Uganda promoting the solar revolution, her neon blue lights symbolizing solar peace and joy for millions.  But, perhaps as a result of having been all over Uganda, Bella had lately not been working very well, having overheated about five times in the last month.  One time we’d had to tie the power steering fluid container to the car using banana leaves.

And now we were taking Bella to Karamoja, where she would endure the worst roads and most remote locations in Uganda.  I was not taking any chances.

Bella in Bwera, Kasese District

Bella in Bwera, Kasese District

And some of the roads Bella might have to endure in Karamoja

And some of the roads Bella might have to endure in Karamoja

So before the trip we took Bella for TWO service visits.  The engine was completely washed, the radiator cleaned, and a new water pump and hose pipe installed, until she looked like new under the hood (or bonnet for those of you who prefer to call it that).

And all for naught.  Two hours north of Kampala, the RAV4 started overheating around a town called Migeera.  There was nothing more we could do for Bella.  The mechanic said this time it was the piston rings, and that she should not be driven further.

So we bought a new car!  This time a massive Toyota Super Custom van.  It was big, newly imported, and had exceedingly comfortable seats that could rotate to face each other, plus two moon-roofs, a nice AC system, and ample storage space in the back.  Our mechanic drove it up to me in Migeera and took back the poor RAV4.  Once the installations were done up north we’d get the Super Custom back to Kampala and brand it with a loving coat of blue and orange paint, I thought to myself, perhaps even give it a name, but for now it had to reach Karamoja.

The only problem with the Super Custom was that it was top-heavy.  Even at low speeds, it would feel as if it were about to tip over when you pulled it over to the side of the road (the upcountry Ugandan roads slope fairly steeply to assist with drainage).  A driver less safe than I, especially one with the inclination to swerve away from obstacles at a high speed instead of using brakes, might roll it on an uneven surface.

But I was driving, so it easily made the journey to Lira and on to Kotido: the second largest town in Karamoja, where four of our solar installations were underway.

Kotido has no electricity, even in the town center—one of only two district capitals in Uganda without grid power.  All the shops run on generator or solar, and most of the fridges use kerosene to power them.  In other words, a perfect market for a solar company.  I was already planning how we would open a shop there a few months after finishing these installations.

The installations were going more slowly than expected, and the team had already spent around 8 days there—50% longer than I had planned.  But their speed was improving; by the time I arrived, they had finally finished all the solar installations in Kotido, and were traveling to Kaabong the next day: the MOST remote district in Karamoja.  Kotido is 11 hours from Kampala, and it’s another 2 hours to Kaabong.  The scenery is stunning: flat plains broken by mesas and small mountains pushed up out of the vast expanses by the tectonic forces that are rending Africa’s rift valley apart, looking like the fingers of some giant trying to claw his way up from below.  It’s beautiful, but if anything happened there, you would be far away from help.

Continue to Part 2 >>

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Harriett Kelley on September 25, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    Don’t leave us hanging!!! Looking forward to the next installation.

    Harriett

    Reply

  2. […] One thing that’s been proven NOT to work is giving away solar systems for free.  I’ve travelled all over East Africa, from peaceful Rwanda to war-torn regions of South Sudan, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard the words, “some muzungus gave us that solar, but for 6 months now it’s not working.” […]

    Reply

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