Thursday, December 25, 2008

Treasure Island

I completely forgot to write this post before.

And now it's Christmas Day, and everyone has cleared out and the camp is quiet, I finally have a chance.

Back in November, with S&J visiting, we travelled to Banda Island, one of the smallest Ssesse Islands just south of the Equator in Lake Victoria.

Banda is the stuff of backpacker myth and legend. You see it written about online, with equal measures of outrage and awe, depending almost entirely on whether or not you get on with it's owner.

Yes, it's a privately owned island. Privately owned by Dom, its muzungu owner. Dom is famous for purposefully offending people he does not like but some people love him. Where would we fall, we wondered?

The place is, in fact, a perfect cross between The Beach and Lord of the Flies. Dom does what he likes, and why not? He does own the place after all.

The accommodation is very basic, but clean and very reasonably priced. We stayed in a small twin banda overlooking the beach, with a box latrine loo and a bucket shower up the track in the forest.

It's full board (or in Dom's words, "very full board" - he throws in all sorts of extras including a rather lethal homebrewed banana based moonshine) and the food is spectacular. Well, apparently not so spectacular if you don't get on. If he hates you it slips right back to beans and rice. On our second night we were upgraded to Pumpkin and Coconut Soup, Fish Paella, Green beans and bacon in soy and ginger, and a lot of the afore-mentioned rum... All the cooking is done on these funky looking solar parabolas.

So I think it's safe to say we got on. We even had a tour around Dom's pineapple patch and Banana groves.

There is little to do there other than eat, drink, sleep. And read. And maybe if the weather's right, take a kayak out or borrow a fishing rod. But you can amaze yourself with how long you can sit and stare out over the lake for.

We spent one twilight looking out over the lake from the roof of Dom's castle. He's been building a rock tower, with a massive great hall style dining room at the bottom. The man is king of his island, and now he has his castle to match. We had sundowners on the roof, watching the sunset and then the lights of the fishing boats come out in the gathering darkness. It reminded me of Goa.

The next morning, I woke early. It was around 4.30am and dawn was breaking. Normally I'd dive for the covers at that sort of time, but I found myself out and about with the camera instead.

They have a resident hippo, that sometimes walks up the beach. When we were there, the hippo came to see us off on our final day, blowing bubbles and rolling around in the water just off the beach.

Banda is a wildlife haven - hundreds of bird species and lots to look at, even if you know nothing about that sort of thing.

Getting there is an adventure in itself. You can get there via the main Ssesse Islands, but the most direct route is via local lake-taxi from Kasanji.

These are essentially massive canoes, seating around 100 people, piled higgledly-piggledly on top of sacks of rice and cartons of water that are getting transported to the islands.

Banda is the first stop, and you hop off into Dom's leaky dinghy to be ferried ashore. On your way back, when you get to Kasanji again, the canoe is instantly surrounded by porters whose sole income comes from earning money carrying belongings AND people on and off the boats. It's 500 shillings a go, which is what we paid, but only after our porter had the cheek to try it on, asking for 20,000 shillings.

I don't mind paying a little over the odds, but that much over the odds? Needless to say, 500 shillings it was.

So if you feel the need to chill, disappear to Banda for a few days. Just be careful to leave yourself plenty of time. It's a hard place to leave.

A Chilli Christmas

So I’m lapsing into bad blogger behaviour and it’s been almost three weeks since my last post. So much is going on, and so much of it is worth talking about, but blame it on the season, blame it on the undersea cables, I haven’t found too much time to get online.

I have spent much of this month up a ladder, in an attempt to finish the painting in the bar. We repainted the bar and restaurant and courtyard areas (it was much needed, with paint peeling in the corners before). On top of the fresh coats of cream and terracotta red with ebony coloured borders I’ve done some ethnic African renditions of animals and fish from the region. Ethnic African Art as interpreted by a Muzungu that is.

We have a giraffe, an anteater (or armadillo depending on your point of view), a large, domineering snake, a gecko, a Nile perch and an antelope (or just plain goat as all the staff seem to prefer). Soon to be added are a tortoise and a crested crane.

The other thing we’ve been busy with on a personal basis is adopting a new cat. We have Panda, our three-legged moggy, and as readers saw earlier this year, we started feeding a wild cat that was remarkable for the colour of its fur. It was blue. The poor thing had been trapped in some building when it was fumigated, or had, in some other way, come into contact with some blue-fur-making chemicals.

Shortly after starting to feed her, we realized why she was hungry. We found her nest of three kittens in between two cottages on the bottom compound. Blue Cat had some children, and thankfully they were not blue. She moved them all into the store in our yard, and we would see them early in the morning through the kitchen window, asleep in a big furry bundle of limbs and pink noses, on top of a single chair in the store.

As the kittens grew up, it became clear that one of them was braver than the others. He would follow his Mum into our house for extra eating opportunities, ducking underneath the mosquito door frame, leaving his brother and sister outside Miaowing plaintifully.

Their mother will always be Blue Cat to us, but we gave the three kittens names. The brave one became Mandu (as in Cat Mandu), the other white one Chairman (Chairman Miaow), and the skinny, scared black one Galore (as in Pussy).

(I know the puns are terrible, but we have to amuse ourselves somehow out here).

One of our ex-housekeepers took Chairman off us the other week, and may yet take Galore (if we can catch him). But we now have a strong relationship with Mandu, who lives in our house most of the time, nestling on our shoulders when we watch TV, and trying to work out how to jump onto a bed that is closely surrounded by a mosquito net. He’s a cute kitten, and Panda has just about accepted him. There’s still the occasional grumpy hiss, but nothing followed up with claws, and sometimes he looks positive pleased to see him.

What with a new kitten, and our other animals, we have quite a growing menagerie. We gained two piglets (male and female – we want more piglets!) a couple of months ago. They are growing fast, but no sign of piggy babies yets. We gained a hen and a cockrel back in September. The hen starting sitting on her eggs and produced seven chicks. The six surviving chicks (one got taken by a black shouldered kite) are growing quite large. The cock may have to go though – he’s taken to roosting outside one of the rooms and we’ve had some complaints about his incessant crowing.

The goats have been doing well, if not a little confused about life. Max, the surviving goatlet of the summer’s twin birth, is a stocky little thing. He and his mother, who we nicknamed Dave, were joined by another female at the end of August. She was christened Nigel by R and I, tho the staff called her Clare. The idea would be that come Christmas, Dave would hit the barbecue for the staff party, and that Max would fall in love with Nigel and make more goat babies to continue the Red Chilli line.

Sadly, nothing so simple has transpired. The teenage Max, despite still occasionally taking milk from his mother, has also been insisting on trying to take her in a completely different sort of a way. Nigel would look on, clearly feeling a bit left out. And recently, Nigel, despite being very much a girl goat, has been mounting Dave – also a girl goat. All this sexual deviancy is upsetting the staff (you have to remember homosexuality is considered downright freakish in this country) and as a result, Nigel/Clare has been slaughtered this morning for the Staff Christmas Barbecue. The pot is full and the staff are licking their lips. Goat, steamed Matoke (plantain), and Irish fried in eggs (Irish is shorthand for potatoes to you and I). That’s a Christmas meal right there.

Back in the kitchen, the staff have been sweating over a Christmas menu targeted at Muzungus. Roast Chicken with homemade pork, apricot and walnut stuffing, gravy, roast potatoes, caramalised pumpkin and carrots and green beans with cranberry sauce. A vegetarian Nut Roast made from pistachios, hazelnuts, almonds, cashew and of course, the ubiquitous G-nut (groundnuts, or peanuts to you and I). Or oven-baked lemon and herb tilapia fillets if you’re feeling fishy. And of course, mince pies for pudding with home-made mincemeat and double cream.

(Image is of Jennifer, one of our kitchen assistants, being camera shy)

I have a feeling we’ll be eating these dishes for days though. The equivalent of leftover Turkey sandwiches. There are people staying – the camp is technically half-full and two nights ago we were full – but it feels like a ghost town – there is no-one around. A lot of people staying are visiting friends or family in Kampala and are off with them for the day. And everyone else, bar a few stragglers, is out of town on safari. Our colleagues up in Murchison are frantic.

So R and I had a roast dinner last night, Nut roast for lunch today, some of the goat as an afternoon snack, and I’ll try the fish tonight. At least that won’t go bad – it was always to be cooked to order anyway.

Either way, we’ll end up as stuffed as we always do. No change there then.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Q: How do you know when you've rats in your office?

A: Footprints on the keyboard*

Living in equatorial Africa does bring with it some new challenges. Including an elevated level of pest control skills required.

Last week we caught two rats in the office with two mice traps, then we caught two mice in one rat trap. We also tried to use something rather nasty called rat glue. You stick a load of glue in a circle on a bit of cardboard and a piece of ham in the middle. Then the next morning you have to be prepared to bash the rat that's now stuck to the cardboard over the head with a iron bar. You tend to do this round the back of the building, out of sight, and it tends to mean you'll skip breakfast. It's cruel but it's generally a more effective way to catch them than the traps.

Only trouble was, when we laid the rat glue trap, we didn't catch any rats or mice. We came in the next morning to find a slightly confused looking gecko, who was wondering quite how his little feet had become so stuck. The gardener looked at him sorrowfully and suggested we free him by cutting around him on the cardboard. I'm not sure he'd quite thought through the whole gecko-on-a-cardboard-plinth look. So we took him round the back and.... washed his paws gently in some soapy water and released him.

Geckos are our friends - what did you expect?

*This is of course, because we have no glass in the windows and the keyboards are always coated in a fine layer of red dust.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Bag Man

For months I've been mulling a plan for running a fair trade craft stall out of the Red Chilli compound. The basic idea is to find a suitable third party we can trust to run it, as long as they promise to pay a fair price for the goods, and plough any profits back into the stall and the community.

In the course of this, I have a list that's getting longer every day, filled with people who have approached me about their community group, their crafts, their products.

One of those people is a guy from the UK called Rick Benfield, who, with his friends, has set up a small charity called Wanna Be Amazin'?,(yes, even he admits the syntax is rather self-consciously twee), and has been working in the field in a small community called Badjo, about an hour north of Kampala.

They are establishing education and health based programmes in the local community there, but one of the things Rick has been trying to set up (the man worked as a consultant for Accenture in the UK) is an income generation scheme for the community based on the handicraft skills they have.

Some of the women weave lovely baskets out of banana grass (as do many communities here in Uganda) but one of the things that makes the Badjo group special is the bag man.

Nathan, the bag man, is a guy who has been making beautiful bags for years. He had previously just made them by himself, and they are made from strips of woven palm leaves interspersed with barkcloth - a material which is uniquely Ugandan and comes from the fibres of the fig tree. It looks a little like tan coloured suede in appearance but feels closer to fibrous paper in texture. It used to made into clothing, and still is for traditional ceremonies of the Buganda.

Nathan's bags are so special, that even I, who had not been in Uganda long when I first saw them, recognised the potential. I'd not seen anything similar in the craft markets here.

Anyway, Rick brought Nathan the bag man and his friends to town a couple of days ago, and I promised to introduce them to some people I knew. The first group is a large Muzungu run North American NGO famous for helping Ugandan women lift themselves out of poverty by making paper beads and selling them internationally. More on them later if this deal with the craft stall plans come good.

The second meeting was with less of a group and more of a friend. Suni is a Kenyan born half-Scottish, half-Hungarian whirlwind expatriate businesswoman, whom I know through the owner of Red Chilli, my boss Debbie.

Suni set up the beautiful Mihingo Lodge overlooking Lake Mburo National Park, and also set up and runs the highly successful Banana Boat chain of craft shops that specialise in fair trade crafts from all over Africa. Anyway, she happened to have five minutes to spare and I wanted her to see Nathan's bags and the potential they had. Potentially.

So on Wednesday, I ended up in meetings with people giving Nathan some highly constructive advice on finishes, labels, descriptors, pricing, etc. It was fascinating, and really rewarding to see people in the craft business have a similar reaction to the bags that I had.

It made me see how much fun, but also how incredibly complex it would be (not to mention how much extra work), a fair trade craft stall would be if we ended up doing it ourselves and didn't hand it over to a third party.

It's tempting, but we have too much on our plates. In the meantime, I'm hoping a certain group will say yes to a joint venture on the stall, and that we'll be able to stock some of Nathan's bags ourselves soon.