By Hafitha Issa
If one mentions about Karamoja, the first thing that comes across one’s mind are guns, cattle rustlers and generally insecurity. So amidst an operation that had children from Karamoja uprooted from Kampala city streets, URN’s City Journalist, Hafitha Issa was asked to travel to Koblin Youth rehabilitation Centre to follow her “Children”. It was the first time she was traveling to Karamoja. But during during her three-day stay, she did not see a Karamojong “warrior” carrying a gun. But the long journey to the remotest part of Uganda’s North Eastern district was worth the narration.
It all started on 2nd August 2022, a day after the government had conducted an operation rescuing children from the streets. It was one of the many operations that the Kampala Capital City Authority-KCCA, Ministry of Gender Labor and Social Development and the Uganda Police conduct occasionally.
During our editorial meeting, it was suggested or rather decided that I follow “my children” to Koblin Youth Rehabilitation Center in Napak where they had been taken. “You will go, you will go” became a hit song some staff members entertained me with whenever we met in the corridors of the office.
I wrote to the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Gender seeking permission to visit the Center in Napak. I also submitted my pitch and budget to my supervisors at the office, it was confirmed. The Ministry, one week after my request, called to confirm the approval of my request. By Friday, 19, August, all was set for me to travel on Sunday.
From my office at Mawanda Road in Kampala, on Sunday at around 5:40pm I set off for Namayiba Bus Terminal to catch the 6:30pm Gateway Bus. The company had the 6:30 or 9pm bus only. and yet I had been warned against taking any other bus because others could drop me on the way if they ran short of passengers. At the Bus Terminal I reached Namayiba a few minutes to 6pm to catch the 6:30pm. I was welcomed by three blockers who ran after my Boda Boda, each hoping to win me over to take a bus with them. Another even tried to hold my small travel bag but I politely asked him to let go, which he did.
I went to the Gateway office where I met a young slender lady wearing a huge purple wig. I greeted and asked for the manager, Abed. She said she didn’t know where he had gone before inquiring where I was going. Napak, I answered. She asked how much Abed had told me as fare, I told her, 50,000 shillings. She asked me to pay, which I did and received my bus ticket.
She then asked me to call the manager but he didn’t pick. I told her I needed him to guide me, and handed me over to one of the workers of the company to guide me while on the bus so that I wouldn’t miss my destination.
She walked to the next room as I made a second attempt on the manager. This time, he picked and asked that I come to the next room. There, a tall, slightly light skinned muscled man laid behind the office counter with two phones placed on his huge chest. I greeted, and asked him to show me a colleague to guide me through the journey. Before he could answer, he dozed off, snoring like he hadn’t been talking a few seconds ago.
As I contemplated my next step, calling out his name or dial his number, he woke up. He started by apologising that he seemed to have ignored me. “Nsonyiwa, nkoye nabadde ntambudde. Togamba nti omusajja nase mu office ye neyebakabwebasi.” He apologized for sleeping off. I smiled it off. Using his fist, he knocked on the wall, signaling the lady in the next room. He then stretched to open one side of the door wider and called a colleague, Kareem, a bus conductor. He again turned to me and asked,
Oggenda Napak, (You’re going to Napak! Yes, I answered. He said, Eri nsi ndala (The other is a different world)Oggenda kumala bbangaki? (How long are you staying?) I told him, three days Nakussatu, ojjakuvaayo nga oteredde (Three days! You’ll come back reformed) He intimated I giggled
Kareem came and he told him I was going to Iriiri. He handed me over to Kareem. If he doesn’t serve you right, you have my number, said Abed.
Aboard Gateway Bus
I walked to the bus, chose a seat on the fourth row from behind. I immediately turned to my phone and started drafting my story. I didn’t raise my head when vendors used enticing language to lure me into buying all sorts of items, mummy headset, baby girl Ka perfume, auntie Chips.
At 18: 41 we set off. The bus played a movie on its screen, a Kung Fu action I hadn’t watched in years with VJ Jjingo translating into Luganda. Several people on the bus seemed to be enjoying themselves, with short ones occupying back seats elongating their necks to catch a clear view of it. For me, I made my prayer as I looked at the less crowded streets on a Sunday evening.
In Kireka, more passengers boarded the bus. I had placed my travel bag in the next seat, holding tight on its stripes guarding it jealously (It contained my camera).My neighbor from the opposite three-seater received a call. It appeared, the person on the other side of the call asked where my neighbor had reached.
“I am not yet in Busia, I have just set off.” He said
I knew we were going to pass Tirinyi road to Mbale and use Soroti Road to reach Napak. But with my neighbor mentioning Busia, I worried we would use Tororo road which is longer by over 30km.
Bus Business; The Puncakes
Good afternoon members, greeted the pancake seller Good afternoon at this time! Wondered one lady Ohh, Sorry sorry,Good eveningMy name is Jonathan I have pancakes.I am told lunch is done now, let’s eat pancakes.
He started walking to the back of the bus calling on passengers to support him. Members pancakes, only 1k.These people know me, I have just delayed.Man; Ise naikura. (Lugisu statement for ; I am satisfied). He walked back to the front calling on “members” to buy pancakes they could keep for tomorrow, he said.
Later, after midnight as we entered Bukedea, we found a road block mounted by FFU officers. My mind raced to the illegal roadblocks reported along the Gulu-Highway and stories of illegal roadblocks in Northern Uganda during the Kony war. I wasn’t particularly afraid, my mind just seemed to fancy wild thoughts and exaggerating events. We stopped in Bukedea for a passenger to disembark. It was a small trading center with a few town warmers mainly Boda Boda riders hanging on their motorcycles while others sipped on their tea accompanied with Chapati from a local eatery next to the stage. I also saw the Post Bank branch.
Arrival in Iriiri
From Bukedea, I slept off before waking up at around 2 am. At 2:45, we reached Iriiri, a trading center in the dark like the middle of nowhere. Kareem signaled that I had arrived, but the driver advised that I disembark at a checkpoint a few meters away. At the checkpoint, mounted in a dark isolated place, with one ordinary police officer my sight caught, the driver again advised that we continue to Moroto and that I would return with the 4am bus.
They said Iriiri was a dangerous place with thieves and Cattle rustlers. Siggwe atali weeno! Omanyiyo eno? (Worse, you’re a stranger here. Are you familiar with this place? Asked Kareem well knowing the answer. I was in touch with Dina, the manager of Greenston Villaz, a guest house where I had booked an accommodation.
We continued to Moroto with a few people disembarking along the way. I was handed over to another Gateway bus which returned me to Iriiri arriving a few minutes after 7am. I boarded a Boda Boda to the guesthouse about a kilometer away from the trading center. I was shown to my room where I took a minutes’ rest before I freshened up and walked out in the company of one of Dina’s girls. We walked for at least 10 minutes before we could find a Boda Boda which took me to the center.
I went to a nearby restaurant for breakfast. For more than 5 minutes, no one attended to me until I invited one of the waitresses to serve me. She served black tea with no spice other than tea leaves and sugar. The cups looked fine, the plastic sugar bowl had a deformed bottom, as though someone poured in hot water to collect sticking sugar. My chapati was served in a white Kaveera (polythene). I was billed 1,000 Shillings.
I walked to the road side to catch a taxi but for close to half an hour, no taxi came. One had passed me while I had breakfast, little did I know it was my only hope if I must use one. I walked to a Boda Boda stage where only one motorcycle with no rider was parked. For close to ten minutes, no one came to offer to transport me until a young man-Ivan surfaced.
“Madam, we go?” He asked and I nodded in agreement.
“Let me bring the Boda Boda”, he said as he crossed the road and returned with a Boda Boda.
We negotiated taking me to the Centre in Koblin, about 30km from Iriiri. We fueled at a stall which sold us half a liter of fuel at 3500. We set off for Koblin. Upon arrival, I asked if he could wait for me. I told him I would be done in an hour’s time.
“If I take long, you come, I pay you and you leave” I told him.
At the Center, the guard led me to my host who welcomed me to their staff room and later, his office. He took me around, checking the rooms where children rescued from the streets are accommodated and those undertaking a skilling program. There were no children under rehabilitation, only those on the skilling program. I interacted with the teenagers there to know their stories about the streets and working as house maids, for those who had returned from Kenya.
I spent more than two hours there. My Boda person still waiting. We then set off for the district headquarters where I was to meet the Chief Administrative Officer -CAO and the Chairman LC 5 to inform them of my intentions coming to the area and also have them answer questions relating to children coming to Kampala streets.
It was coming to 3pm when we left the headquarters taking another over 40 km journey back to Iriiri. All my time, I had a jacket on, not just because of the multiple pockets where I put my equipment but because I had to ride on a Boda Boda for a long distance. With blowing my face hard, I often pulled out my phone to take photos of things of interest, We reached Iriiri when It was coming to 4pm.
We visited Pole-Pole Restaurant for lunch together with my Boda person. The only food available was rice, Posho commonly known as Kikosolo and beans, meat and greens (sukumawiki) for sauce. I was served Posho, rice, beans and Sukumawiki, both plates heaped. My Boda person too. The food was well prepared, I hadn’t consumed that Posho in years. We were billed 6000 shillings for two plates. I had planned for 150,000 Shillings for meals during my stay in Napak, but here, I hadn’t consumed even 10,000 shillings.
I returned to my place of aboard, prayed, freshened up and started typing my story of the day to file for publication. The story was about the nine Children who had escaped from the rehabilitation centers five days after they had been brought in. My phone soon ran out of battery, so I asked Dinah to help me charge. My room had solar powered light but no provision for charging. I learnt to use my battery sparingly because I had not carried a power bank. In Villages of Lopeei and Lokopo Subcounties
The next morning at 7am, I was a bit familiar with the area, so I walked alone to the Centre. I sat on a shop veranda hoping to get a taxi. For more than an hour, all I saw were fuel trucks, trucks carrying charcoal, army trucks, government and NGO cars. I relented and called my Boda person who reached me in less than five minutes, we fueled with one liter and drove to Matany Subcounty where I could meet the Community Development Officer-CDO of Lokopo Subcounty. He only met us briefly before he directed us to Lokopo Subcounty where we could find families of rescued children and local leaders to talk to.
We drove close to 20kms on a marrum road to reach Lokopo. We were joined by the CDOs friend, Thomas, whom he had asked to take us around as he rushed for training at the district headquarters. Thomas took us to Lolita village where we could meet one of the families. I had a list acquired from a source who had participated in the exercise, so we followed that to trace the families. We visited the family of Paul Oboi who had lost his 5-year-old child, 8-year-old niece and 23 years old sister to the streets. They used the time when he was in hospital to flee the hunger at home and came to Kampala hoping to get a decent life.
We concluded our interaction with Obo’s family by midday. We then set off for Matany. There is a shortcut from Lokopo to Lopeei, our next destination. But Thomas needed to check up on a meeting he was supposed to attend in Matany so we drove there. When we got there and he entered the building, he never returned, but sent a messenger to inform us that he had been caught up. Duped? I thought, but understood since there were no Boda Bodas from Lokopo to Matany
We set off with my Boda person, stopping a few times to ask if we were still on track. He knew Lopeei but not the Subcounty offices where we were destined. From Iriri to Lopeei, we found children as young as 5 years of age grazing animals in their tens. Sometimes they grazed in a group. At the water streams some children and teenagers fetched water while men were taking a shower. At one stream, three men showered freely as if they had erected a curtain only they could see. My Boda person wasn’t seeing anything new.
We reached Lopeei Subcounty at around 1pm and were welcomed by the Agricultural Officer and the accountant. The other officials were away, some for a meeting at the district Sub counties. These two invited two parish chiefs for me, after I had explained the purpose of my visit. The two Parish chiefs, one in his mid 30s and another in his 60s were immediately cautious to discuss the topic. “I can only give you information and you write, but no recording audio” he said fearing that he could be targeted by cattle rustlers in the area who have exacerbated that insecurity problem.
There had been an attack on the animals at the Lopeei Military Brigade and in pursuit of the attackers, one who was later identified as a speaker from Moroto district was shot in the hip, before he chose to end his life instead of being arrested. It was coming to 2pm, and we planned to leave, but my Boda person had said we needed to refuel. We purchased fuel from a nearby trading center at 8,000 shillings a liter. We bought two liters and left.
I had been warned by all officials I talked to at the district and my Boda person that Lopeei is a very dangerous place. “Even us, when we go there, we have to leave by midday, or latest 2pm” a social worker warned, adding that sometimes rustlers attack as early as 3pm. Thank God, we left Lopeei safely, save for a few times we encountered drunkards who rode bicycles in Zigzag format almost leading us into a road crash.
We passed by the district headquarters to meet up with the CAO but missed all top officials by a whisk as they set off a few minutes before for a meeting in Moroto and Mbale. We then proceeded to Iriiri and as usual went to Pole-Pole restaurant and had our lunch at around 4pm. End of my Stay
After a late lunch, I went to the guest house and parked my bags in preparation for my return journey to Kampala. I called the manager Gateway Bus to inquire about the time the bus would reach Iriiri. “It’s there by 6am. You take Gateway, if you board any other, you’ll reach Kampala at 10pm” he said.
That night, there was heavy downpour from around 8pm to 10pm. I busied myself on my bed, drafting my stories on my phone. When It was time to sleep, I stepped down to prepare myself. I stepped in a stream of water, the rain had sneaked through the windows and the door into the room, wetting the floor. I tiptoed from and back to bed. I slept until my 5am alarm went off. I raised, prepared myself for prayer and departure. But 30 minutes to 6am, the rains once again started falling. I peeped through the window, and it was still blanketed in darkness. I performed my morning prayer (Fajr), and asked God to get me on the bus.
It clocked 6am and I was still at the guest house, drizzling. Ten minutes later, I decided to brave the drizzles and walk to the main road. About 200 meters away from the main road, I heard the bus hooting as it neared the stage at Iriiri. Carrying my bag and garb, wearing a half-wet jacket I started running through a shortcut to catch the bus. I caught the bus, boarded with my heart throbbing. But yes, I was happy I hadn’t missed the bus, otherwise, my stay would have been extended.
We went through Katakwi, Soroti and had our major stop in Mbale, my home town. We were given 20 for self administration. I grabbed breakfast and also some home items, not forgetting Maleya, the Bamasaba delicacy. We then set off and arrived in Kampala at 4:30pm. The noise, cars, people and the many Boda Bodas criss-crossing each other welcomed me. Truly, I was in Kampala. My Boda person from Kampala picked me up, we drove through Sir Apollo Kaggwa Road to my home in Kawempe. The children were there at the Makerere Road-Nakulabye junction, begging.
I enjoyed my journey to Napak, but it felt nice being back home. My first stop was the bathroom then the kitchen, ohhh, I needed a meal made with my hands.