We have the sky to ourselves. I peer out at the Rift Valley sprawled below, framed too neatly in my aeroplane window and watch the shadow of our light aircraft as it flies over a green ribbon snaking through the savanna. Here is the Nile river pulsing life through the plains of Africa from its source in Lake Victoria. The drone of the engine is all I can hear, though I know far below me, right at this moment, the river is hurtling itself through a narrow gap and that the noise of this mighty cascade drowns out all others at the river’s edge. We are flying over Murchison Falls, where the Nile tumbles 140 metres into the gully below, an explosion of energy before it flows, spent and tranquil along the valley floor and into Lake Albert and beyond…
I am dosing a little, thinking what a journey that must be. How would it be if this river could talk to me, and tell me everything of life along its banks? I am imagining those tales, tales of wildlife and resident crocs and hippos drawn by thirst and heat in the wild places; of villagers come to bathe and wash their clothes and chatter, who drift away again through the tall grass, balancing their spoils aloft; of cattle and water buffalo in farmlands who come to drink and wallow, and farmers who leech channels of water for their crops; of bedouins with camels in tow, seeking respite from the desert heat; of ancient rocks and shifting sands just marking time; of cities like Luxor and Aswan looming out of the dust, and of the ancient tombs and pyramids from another era guarding the west bank. I am humbled by all this history the Nile has witnessed, all those secrets kept in its depths. How exciting it must be to finally reach the noise, the buildings and clamour of Cairo, with felucca sails dotted across its waters, offering a haven from the whir of humanity. To the North, the anticipation of Alexandria and beyond it the blue Mediterranean Sea must be cheering after such a voyage as this.
Our voyage to Murchison was modest in comparison, modest and horribly delayed. Our plane had lamentably taxied into a truck on Entebbe runway, so it was late afternoon by the time we took off. Rick and I weren’t fazed – we were just along for the day trip. We were flying his London boss and wife up to the Falls to ‘check out’ a Safari Lodge as a potential investment. In fact, it was still being built, but there were luxury tents awaiting their arrival, perched along the cliffs overlooking the river. We swept in low over the tents, surprising a large herd of grazing buffalo, and landed on a stretch of grass you couldn’t really call a runway. Alighting from the plane, we said our goodbyes to the boss and his wife, picked up a couple of passengers, and then we were taking off into the sunset, Lake Albert a mirror of gold and the hazy blue mountains of Zaire receding into the distance. I was grinning, heart soaring, and thought that this moment, if ever there was one, was pretty near perfect.
We knew the treats this Murchison camp had in store for the visitors, as we had been the lucky ones a couple of months earlier. We had driven the 7 hour journey north from Kampala with my Mum, the day after we broke the news that she was to have her first grandchild. We were all in great spirits. Driving in the Ugandan bush was always a bumpy adventure and our Landcruiser invariably rose to the occasion. This was our first journey north and the names we passed were new to us: Wobulenzi, Butuntumula, Nakasongola. We drove through Luweero, where, until a year ago, a pyramid of human skulls was displayed as a memorial to the hundreds of thousands killed during the bush war in the 1980’s. In total, we passed through ten police road blocks, once having to stop and give a policeman a lift to Masindi. We picnicked on the roadside at a ruined tank – a memento the residents have chosen to leave as a reminder of the killing fields. Rick told us over sandwiches that the Lord’s Resistance Army was still active north of the river and the entrepreneurs were taking a big risk hoping that tourists would venture this far. At last, we were emerging through forest to the edge of the escarpment, and the most beautiful panorama across to Lake Albert and the Virunga mountains behind. We arrived to find we had the entire camp to ourselves, plus manager, staff and builders. The tents had views over the river to our exclusive corner of Africa and all we could hear were the sounds of nature for miles around. Well, that and the builders’ drilling just down the river bank, but you can’t have it all.
That night we dined under a baobab tree on the river bank. The sky was so clear that we could see a myriad of stars just like in the Disney movies. As we often did on clear african nights, we tried out our knowledge of the stars: we found the North star and the Big Dipper straight away, then looked for Ursa Major and Minor and quickly ran aground. (You would think we had learnt more by now). So we turned to a more personal topic. My husband, my Mum and I, we three, sat in the moonlight by the great River Nile discussing baby names; while said baby was concentrating on growing a few limbs for starters. Jack was decided on for a boy and Rosie for a girl, the first of many choices probably, but the setting made these ones unforgettable.
In lazy moments, or rather the nauseous moments of early pregnancy, I was reading an appropriate book. It was the biography of an incredible Victorian woman, who with her husband in tow (or was it the other way round?) discovered Murchison Falls. I thought their story was one of the most romantic I had read. Florence von Sasz had been orphaned during the Hungarian revolution and raised, the only white girl in a harem, destined for slavery. Samuel Baker, an English explorer, was on a hunting trip and on a whim, attended a slave auction, where he was instantly captivated by the beautiful young Florence in the slave line-up. Though she was bought for the Ottoman Pasha of Vidin, Samuel risked his wrath by bribing the guard and absconding with her through the back door. Florence subsequently accompanied Sam as his lover on an expedition into central Africa to find the source of the Nile, though instead they found the falls and Lake Albert. She was a constant strength and companion and an invaluable aid to him through difficult times. They returned to England, and named the falls after Sir Roderick Murchison, President of the Royal Geographic Society. Soon after their return, they married, though when Queen Victoria found out about their previous sinful arrangement, she was not amused.
As Rick and I landed at Entebbe in the dark, after our round trip to Murchison to drop the boss, we braced ourselves for reality. The adventure had been a distraction for us from the terrible news of distressing events occurring in neighbouring Rwanda. Walking through the airport, we bumped into a pilot Rick knew through work, with the fantastic name of Tony Cocain. Tony owned a plane and offered a medical evacuation service throughout Uganda. He looked like a man come back from a warzone, and that, we found out, was exactly so. He had been in Rwanda, flying humanitarians in to deal with the mass genocide that had erupted the previous month. Just that day, he had counted a thousand bodies floating in Lake Victoria. No wonder he looked devastated.
Mombasa was where we first heard the terrible news, six weeks earlier. We were heading back to Kampala after being cut off from the world in Msambweni, a remote fishing village enjoying a beach holiday. To reach Mombasa airport by car, you have to cross the harbour by ferry. Our first inkling that something was badly amiss was waiting to board the ferry; everything stopped and we watched with alarm as an enormous US warship sailed into the harbour. All talk on the ferry was of the news: that four days earlier, the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi had been shot down as their aeroplane descended into Kigali. Both were killed. It had sparked catastrophic killings and in those four days alone, tens of thousands of Rwandans had been murdered by their fellow villagers, neighbours even, in barbaric fashion. As our aeroplane descended into Nairobi, we saw the ominous grey planes of the UN on the tarmac, with Belgian air forces and soldiers everywhere, preparing to leave for Rwanda. A sobering return home indeed this was, and frightening to think how unaware we had been in our remote beach bubble.
I took a phone call at the surgery the following week from an Aid worker on the Rwandan border: he was seeing twenty bodies a day being washed ashore from the river, and wanted advice on how to preserve them for identification. In the end, because of the sheer volume of bodies, packs of wild dogs and vultures were getting there first and eating them. The tragedy of this prompted Tony and the NGOs to start the process of counting the bodies and gathering them into mass graves to be burned with diesel.
Downstream there was a knock-on effect too: as Tony Cocain had seen, many of the victims were floating down the Kagera river. This is the largest water body flowing into Lake Victoria, which in turn provides fish and water to Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The pollution was catastrophic for the fisherman and fish farms and Rick saw this first-hand through his work. There was a newly-built fish factory on his portfolio due to export its first consignment to Sainsbury’s. Of course, as soon as they saw the aerial TV shots of the bodies floating in Lake Victoria, they faxed immediate cancellation of their order.
How can we conceptualise the loss of human life that took place in those 100 days? The official Rwandan government figures stated that over a million people were killed – mostly Tutsi – that’s 10,000 murdered every day, 400 every hour, 7 every minute. This portrays the death toll, but not the brutal methods used to murder their once-neighbours; or the mass rapes committed as part of a warped ploy to stamp out Tutsi ethnicity. How can we give this tragedy form, a form that can shout out ‘Learn from this!’ to all who will listen in the future?