The Nile at Mile One

On the rough road in Uganda, where visions past and future clash, and all things flow from the mighty river.

Mark Hertsgaard

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Where the Nile enters Lake Albert, in the northwestern corner of Uganda, lies a tiny fishing village named Wanseko. It is the end of the line, the last stop on the public bus route from Kampala, the run-down capital nestled among the hills above Lake Victoria, 160 miles to the south. The trip took nine hours the day I made it, crammed inside a 1960s-vintage American-made school bus that for some reason had been painted chocolate brown. Bench seats originally meant to accommodate two schoolkids each were now packed with four and five Ugandans of all ages, the small sitting on elders’ laps amid high-pitched chatter and good-natured jockeying for space.

Apart from the close quarters, the drive was pleasant and cool for the first two hours. The farther north we traveled, the drier the land became, yet it remained beautiful and apparently fertile. On either side of the road stretched plains of golden grass, dotted by cone-roofed huts and oblong structures whose white crosses identified them as the schools and churches bequeathed by European missionaries a century ago.
By the time we reached Wanseko, it was late afternoon and I was one of only three passengers still on the bus. Wanseko was little more than a few low-slung shacks grouped around a dusty clearing the size of a football field. To the west, across Lake Albert, I could dimly make out the mountains of Zaire through a bluish haze. There was nothing like a hotel in town, so I paid the equivalent of a single U.S. dollar to spend the night inside a barren concrete room behind the general store.

I had come to Wanseko while retracing a trip that Winston Churchill made through Africa in 1907. At the time, the future British prime minster had just begun his first significant government appointment, as Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for the Colonies, a post that naturally included Africa among its concerns. Churchill’s expedition took him by ship across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal and around the Horn of Africa to the old Arab port city of Mombasa, located on the Indian Ocean in what is now Kenya. The newly constructed Uganda Railway carried him west to Nairobi and on to Lake Victoria, the presumed source of the Nile. He crossed the great lake and followed the Nile through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt to Cairo. The expedition was a combination of business and pleasure for the 33-year-old Churchill, undertaken during Parliament’s autumn recess and paid for in part by a book he would write about the experience, My African Journey.

Part travelogue, part policy paper, My African Journey is a short, impassioned book of dazzling prose and keen observation. It articulates virtually all facets of the ideology that shaped industrial man’s impact on Africa in the 20th century—the values, fears, goals, and justifications that animated European efforts to recast the human and physical environment of Africa. Churchill saw the continent through the eyes of an inveterate colonizer, an unashamed imperialist who believed that colonialism benefitted colonizer and colonized alike. Even more than his white skin, what set Churchill apart from the Africans he encountered was the technology at his disposal—guns, steamships, railways, the telegraph, and other emblems of the industrial era. Technology had brought wealth and progress to the people of Britain, argued Churchill, and it would do the same for the population still mired in the “primary squalor” of Africa.

When I pulled a copy of My African Journey down from a friend’s bookshelf in Nairobi, I was in the midst of traveling around the world, researching a book about the many environmental pressures crowding in on the human race at the end of the 20th century. Churchill’s unqualified enthusiasm for technology had helped convince me to retrace his African journey, for technology, of course, lies at the heart of humanity’s relationship with the environment. Yet to many contemporary environmentalists, technology is almost a dirty word. The root of the problem, as they see it, is the arrogant belief that modern man can, by virtue of his technology, live separate from, even superior to, nature—”to tame the jungle,” as Churchill put it.

It is easy for a late-20th-century observer to condemn Churchill’s boorish insistence on conquering nature. But there is no denying that technology has been inseparable from human progress since time immemorial. From the moment our first human ancestor picked up the first stone tool more than two million years ago—an event which, according to the fossil record, may have occurred less than 300 miles northeast of Wanseko, in the Great Rift Valley—the fate of our species has been inextricably linked to the creation of technologies that gave us more efficient means of extracting food, water, shelter, and other essentials from the physical environment. Churchill’s generation had particularly good reason to regard technology as a liberating force. For millennia, the vast majority of humans had lived on the edge of starvation, struggling against natural forces beyond their control. But the industrial ascent of the 19th century—notwithstanding the often abominable working conditions imposed on the laboring classes—had shown how the application of technology could raise living standards for nearly everyone.

Like other champions of the industrial order then and now, Churchill had big ideas about what technology, properly applied, could achieve. I was following in his footsteps partly because My African Journey had made such a trip sound like irresistible fun, with enough risk thrown in to keep it interesting. But I also wanted to see how Churchill’s ideas compared to African reality nearly a century later, and what that implied about our contemporary environmental dilemma.

That night in Wanseko, I wondered whether Churchill had managed to arrange better accommodations than I had. I slept poorly in my concrete hovel, awakened repeatedly by the chickens—or was it rats?—that, inches from my head, rustled and scratched against the wall outside.

The next morning, determined to remain as faithful to Churchill’s itinerary as I could, I rented a bike in Wanseko for the trip to Murchison Falls, praised by Churchill as the most spectacular waterfall to be found on the Nile’s 4,037-mile journey from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean. Churchill wrote that a bicycle was “the best of all methods of progression in Central Africa,” for it offered both speed and mobility. In the process, he came up with what may be the first literary paean to the glories of singletrack riding: “Even when the track is only two feet wide, and when the densest jungle rises on either side and almost meets above the head, the bicycle skims along, swishing through the grass and brushing the encroaching bushes, at a fine pace.”

Actually, I had little choice but a bike if I hoped to reach Kabalega Falls, as Murchison Falls is also known. I had been told back in Kampala that I could catch a bus to the Falls from Wanseko, but that turned out to be false. Walking was not advisable; the distance was 27 miles, and the area was frequented by rhinos and other dangerous wildlife. There were also bandits; indeed, soldiers hunting them had boarded the chocolate bus the day before and aggressively questioned each of the male passengers (except me, the only white). Begging a ride from a passing vehicle was a possibility, but it could be anywhere from five minutes to five days before a vehicle passed. On the other hand, there were lots of bicycles around; the Ugandans seemed as fond of them as Churchill had been, and they almost never traveled without passengers or large quantities of goods perched over their back wheels.
How I managed, amidst such plenty, to select the singularly pitiful specimen of bicycle I ended up with is something I cannot easily explain. Some people just have a sixth sense about these things. After my test ride, I did tell the owner—a teenage boy with a round, eager face—that something was wrong with the left pedal; it was cocked at a funny angle, and my foot kept slipping off it. Besides that, the back tire was treadless, the front wheel had no brakes, and the rusted metal seat offered a standard of discomfort unknown since the Middle Ages. But the owner assured me that the pedal was no problem. And since it was already midmorning, I was in such a hurry—always a mistake in Africa—that I didn’t doubt him.

The first six miles of hard dirt road passed quickly enough, and in half an hour I reached the turnoff to the Falls. I pedaled east, 21 miles to go. The road became a dusty track through clusters of thatch huts where children played in the shade beneath mothers’ watchful eyes. A teenager in a torn white T-shirt who introduced himself as Robert began riding his bike alongside me and appointed himself my new best friend for life. The track soon began to climb through sparse, dry bush—and climb, and climb some more. After three or four miles on my one-speed stallion with a 30-pound rucksack on my back, I was feeling the strain. Robert was, too, I think, but the smile never left his face as he casually asked whether I had an extra T-shirt or notebook I could spare.

Suddenly, as if to mock my exertions, a white jeep barreled past us in a blizzard of dust. It was a chance in a thousand, but if I had waited at the turnoff with my thumb out, I could have been in that jeep. Instead, I faced another 16 miles of hard labor beneath a sun that, in Churchill’s words, “even in the early morning . . . sits hard and heavy on the shoulders. At 10:00 its power is tremendous.” It was now after 11; the sun was a huge, hazy white mass.

I had gone only another 200 yards or so when my bicycle’s left pedal abruptly collapsed beneath my foot like a cliff after too much rain. The bike keeled over sideways, and my pack and I went sprawling. As I lay in the dust trying to collect my wits, Robert looked down and helpfully observed, “Your bike is faulty, I think.”

I reassembled the pedal and banged it back into place, but I had no tools, so there was no means of securing it firmly. I climbed back on anyway and got about five feet before the pedal gave way again and I toppled over a second time. I banged it back into place again, climbed on, and toppled over again. After a couple more rounds of this sport, I devised a crabbed method of pedaling that took me another 500 yards or so before the pedal fell off and had to be reset. When the path turned from navigable clay to wheel-swallowing sand I was flung to the ground once more. By now, Robert had seen enough of my antics; he murmured good-bye and disappeared down the hill.

It was at this point that I began to suspect Churchill of grossly overstating the attraction of Murchison Falls, not to mention the virtues of bicycle travel in Africa. I covered the next five miles on foot, pushing my bike before me through the sand like a bedouin trudging along behind a reluctant camel. Finally I saw the gate to Kabalega Falls National Park, manned by a park ranger wearing ragged cutoffs and no shirt. He examined my bike, ducked inside his hut, and returned with one of the most beautiful pieces of technology I had ever seen: a pair of battered pliers. He took my park entrance fee—10 U.S. dollars—and for no extra charge restored my bike to semiworking order by binding the pedal together with a spare piece of wire.

When I finally arrived at the campsite an hour later, weak and light-headed, the first sight to greet me was the white jeep that had left me in the dust, now parked under a big tree next to a small party of lolling white tourists. I stumbled off the bike into the shade and collapsed on the ground, whereupon one of the jeep riders, who turned out to be an Englishman with uncommon powers of deduction and tact, gasped, “Was that you on the bike? We almost stopped to pick you up!”

Churchill felt no shame in observing that Africans were members of “an inferior race.” Nevertheless, he argued, they could make the leap to modernity with the help of the British Empire. The “four millions of these dark folk” living in England’s East Africa Protectorate could improve their standard of living if they would only accept the guidance of Europeans and embrace industrial development. Of course, Africans were not given much choice in the matter. This was the era of untrammeled European imperialism in Africa, and Britain was determined not to lose out in the carving up of the continent. Occupation of Kenya required the removal of such tribes as the Kikuyu and Masai from lands they had occupied for centuries, a task local British authorities pursued with relish. Author Peter Matthiessen has written that by 1939, “four-fifths of the best land in Kenya was the province of perhaps 4,000 whites; a million Kikuyu were to make do with the one-fifth set aside as the Kikuyu Reserves.” Ugandans were more successful at resisting such expropriations. The country has suffered through terrible civil strife and an AIDS pandemic in recent decades, but partly because land ownership is far more evenly distributed than elsewhere in East Africa, hunger and poverty are noticeably less prevalent.

Churchill insisted that Britain’s intervention in eastern Africa would benefit all parties, but in retracing his journey roughly nine decades after the fact, I found the economic disparity between Africa and the industrial world as vast as ever. The forces of progress that Churchill championed seemed to have changed everything and nothing here. The physical environment had certainly been altered, but the prosperity derived was limited and narrowly distributed.

The first leg of Churchill’s sojourn was the magnificent train ride from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. When I took that same train ride, I was impressed, as we pulled out of Mombasa, to see numerous signs of a functioning industrial society: smokestacks, power lines, petroleum refinery tanks, and row after row of low concrete warehouses awaiting replenishment from the half-dozen container ships moored in Kilindini Harbor. Next to a chemical processing plant, clusters of silver piping thrust themselves skyward like industrial dandelions, while overhead a red-and-white jetliner screamed its approach to the international airport. But the lives of the people were another matter; I often felt as if an African version of A Tale of Two Cities was playing out before me. As the descending airliner disappeared below the jagged skyline, the train chugged slowly past a squalid shantytown whose tin-roofed shacks of rotted wood contained the shops and meager households of the urban masses. Sprawled on the ground not ten feet from our click-clacking wheels, a man in trousers and a short-sleeve shirt slept open-mouthed, as if poisoned or drunk. Past the city limits, small children scampered from their mud and grass huts to gather along the track, wave and cheer, and plead with outstretched palms, “Give me pen! Give me sweet!” or merely, “Something!” Meanwhile, the gulf separating the races of eastern Africa remained as wide as when Churchill was writing condescendingly that it was impossible to “travel even for a little while among the Kikuyu tribes without acquiring a liking for these lighthearted, tractable, if brutish children, or without feeling that they are capable of being instructed and raised from their present degradation.” Black-on-black tribal violence was still common, there was no love lost between black Africans and the Asian merchant class, and the dominant emotions between Africans and Europeans were distrust and fear. The closest interaction most whites had with blacks occurred within master-servant relationships. Spend an evening in the company of whites and one certain topic of conversation would be the relative honesty and competence of their maids, cooks, and gardeners. “You just never know what they’ll fancy,” one Nairobi matron, recalling alleged stealing, mused while being served Christmas dinner by a squad of middle-aged servants.

There was no more revealing symbol of the chasm between blacks and whites than the matatu, a vehicle in which most whites never set foot but that was the primary means of transport for blacks. To be sure, there were good reasons not to set foot in a matatu—unless terrible overcrowding and a high risk of death or dismemberment were your ideas of excitement. Matatu was a Swahili term for privately operated minibuses that were much faster than public buses, far more numerous, and only slightly more expensive. They also had lots more personality. Every matatu in Kenya had a nickname painted in bright colors across the front and back of the vehicle, with speed the usual theme. I rode one matatu called the Singaha Quick. Other names I saw included the Road Shark, the Gusii Express, and inexplicably, the ’90s Explainer.

When I reached Lake Victoria, the only way to carry on to Uganda was by matatu. (The ferry Churchill took across the lake had long since gone out of service.) The bus stand in Kisumu, a bustling town on Lake Victoria’s eastern shore, was a beehive of cheerful chaos when I arrived the next morning. While hawkers whistled, clapped, and shouted out their destinations, passengers milled about, occasionally hoisting their belongings up onto the roof before boarding their matatu of choice. I was assigned to an older matatu that already looked more than full. Twelve adults sat facing one another on metal benches that extended in a horseshoe down both sides of the van. Each person’s hips and shoulders were wedged firmly against his or her neighbors’; I couldn’t move my legs without kicking the person across the row. The last passenger on board, a broadly smiling young man wearing a dark wool suit (wool!) and carrying a large cardboard box, was directed to sit in a nonexistent space across the aisle from me. I watched him with my own eyes and still don’t know how he managed to fit.

While we waited to depart, the skipping guitar riffs of African pop music filled the air and hopeful vendors approached the van. A hand would suddenly thrust its way inside the open back door, six inches from my face, and flash bottles of soda, or boiled eggs, pineapple slices, sweets, cheap wristwatches, plastic bowls and cups, cassette tapes, wrench and screwdriver sets, handkerchiefs, earrings, or most bizarre of all, packet after packet of unlabeled pills.

When we finally departed, the crowding inside the matatu made it impossible for us passengers to see much outside, which was just as well. Daredevil speeds and passing maneuvers are matters of honor among many matatu drivers, and grisly accounts of highway deaths are a staple of the region’s newspapers. One story featured photographs of a matatu that hit a petroleum tanker head-on while struggling to pass another matatu; the passengers had been charred into blackened lumps where they sat. Africans I talked to were aware of the dangers of riding these minibuses—how could they not be?—but they accepted them with placid nonchalance. On a continent where one infant in seven does not survive to age five and a woman of 50 is considered old, death is regarded not as a distant stranger, but as a familiar companion. Africans accept death and discomfort because they have no choice, just as they ride matatus because the only alternative is to cover the same distance on foot.

Wherever I traveled, urban Africans seemed caught in a kind of purgatory, somewhere between the seductions of modernity and the habits of tradition. They had access to some of the same trappings of city life found in Europe and the United States, but these trappings were always compromised. There was mass transit, but it was wildly dangerous; newspapers, but they were only four pages long; public schools, but without books. Of the feast of materialism that Churchill had promised them so long ago, the vast majority of Africans had tasted barely a bite.
At the Ugandan border, I had to switch to yet another matatu to make the trip to Jinja, a town on Lake Victoria’s northern shore near the source of the Nile. Churchill had ridiculed Jinja as an “outlandish name” for a town that geography and geopolitics had plainly destined for greatness; he wanted to rename it Ripon Falls, “after the beautiful cascades which lie beneath it, and from whose force its future prosperity will be derived.” What was needed, he added, was to build a dam and “let the Nile begin its long and beneficent journey to the sea by leaping through a turbine.” Easy to say, but it was 1954 before this vision was actually accomplished.

On the ride to Jinja, my matatu passed the electric power station that now hummed beside the dam. But the other blessings forecast by Churchill—”the gorge of the Nile crowded with factories and warehouses” and “crowned with long rows of comfortable tropical villas and imposing offices”—had yet to materialize. And later that afternoon, when a few greedy matatu drivers suddenly raised the price of the trip to Kampala by the equivalent of ten cents, more than half of the passengers angrily disembarked and prepared to wait two more hours for a later matatu rather than pay the higher fare.

The source of the Nile, where the world’s longest river emerges from Africa’s largest lake, should rank as one of the great scenic spots on earth. But because of the dam two miles downriver, “the beautiful cascades” of Ripon Falls have disappeared beneath the waterline, so now no one spot stands out as the precise beginning of the Nile. Gazing down from the tidy park that overlooked the Nile, I watched a flock of long-necked, brilliantly white birds wheel lazily across the river before settling back among the branches of a half-submerged tree. On the far bank, swaying in the light breeze, were row upon row of rubbery leafed matoke trees, which provide the banana-like staple of the local diet. Off to my left, Victoria Bay, calm and spacious, curled out of sight to meld seamlessly into the great lake. Without question, this remained a place of uncommon beauty and peacefulness. Yet a feeling of loss and incompleteness was inescapable. What this cosmic site on the earth’s surface looked like before the coming of industrial man could now barely be imagined. Churchill provided an inkling: here the Nile was “a vast body of water nearly as wide as the Thames at Westminster Bridge, and this imposing river rushes down a stairway of rock . . . in smooth, swirling slopes of green water.”

Leaving the park, I stopped to chat with the young man who had sold me my entrance ticket. Neatly dressed, wearing flimsy eyeglasses with black plastic frames, he lounged beneath a tree with a friend, taking refuge from the midday sun. Yes, he agreed, this was a very beautiful place to work, but day after day, week after week, it sometimes got boring. Spying his newspaper on the ground, I asked why he did not bring a book to read. It was a foolish question, but his answer was polite.

“It is very difficult to obtain books in Uganda,” he explained. “Our shops are usually empty. And any book for sale costs a great deal of money.” When I marveled at how lovely this place must have been before the dam, he was again a step ahead of me, seeming to read my mind and discern my unspoken assumptions.

“Yes,” he smiled, with the enchanting gentleness I found to be so common among East Africans. “But the dam has done much good for us, giving us electricity.”

“You trade one for the other,” I said.

He beamed with the pleasure of having communicated perfectly across our cultural divide. “Yes! You trade one for the other.”

Compressed in that brief exchange is the essential dilemma facing the human species as it approaches the 21st century. Can the material strivings of the entire human family be reconciled with the need to protect the planet’s already strained ecosystems? Of course that young Ugandan deserves books, and electric light to read them by. And if he must, he will accept a great many aesthetic and environmental woundings in return for such benefits of progress. But must he? Can prosperity be achieved only through the kind of ruthless “development” that has turned so much of the Third World—from the industrial hellholes of China to the clear-cut forests of Brazil—into environmental wastelands? Can we not learn to choose technologies that help us work with, rather than against, nature, and thereby preserve as much of it as possible in its original, wild state?

Churchill was lucky enough to observe Murchison Falls, where my travels in his footsteps finally concluded, in the first light of dawn. “The river was a broad sheet of steel grey veined with paler streaks of foam,” he wrote. “The rock portals of the Falls were jetty black, and between them, illumined by a single shaft of sunlight, gleamed the tremendous cataract—a thing of wonder and glory, well worth traveling all the way to see.”

I was about to find out if my efforts to reach this remote point along the Nile, not to mention my taxing bike ride from Wanseko, had been worth it. The jeep riders had arranged for a park ranger to ferry them upriver later in the afternoon so they could see the “tremendous cataract” up close, and they invited me to join them.

We didn’t see another human being the entire trip. Indeed, we saw no signs that humans had ever been here—just the pristine fecundity of a healthy ecology humming with activity. The River Nile, as the locals called it, was often hundreds of yards wide and surrounded on both sides by steep hillsides covered with thick greenery. The river looked amazingly blue and clean, its rippling surface sparkling in the afternoon sun. The park’s wildlife population was said to have been all but eliminated by rampaging soldiers during the Obote and Amin dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, but if so, the subsequent recovery had been remarkable. I saw more wild animals along this 13-mile stretch of the Nile than I had seen in many weeks of wide-ranging travel in neighboring Kenya. There were literally hundreds of hippopotamuses—some plodding up the riverbanks, others squatting in the shallows with only their bulging eyes visible, still others disappearing underwater only to reappear half a minute later on the other side of the boat. Sharing sandbars with the hippos were dozens of plump brown crocodiles. Nearly all of them were stretched out on their bellies with their jaws open wide, revealing long rows of nasty-looking yellowish teeth. This open-mouthed posture was actually a cooling reflex, like a dog’s panting, but it lent the reptiles a peculiar aspect, at once menacing and lazy.

The animals rarely shied away from us. Often the boat came close enough to the hippos and crocodiles that I could have reached over the railing and touched them. Along the shore were numerous graceful giraffes and self-possessed elephants, as well as a few shaggy, skittish waterbucks. And all around was an extraordinary array of waterfowl: goliath herons; fish eagles; saddle-billed storks with yellow, orange, and black beaks that resembled miniature Ugandan flags; and most entertaining of all, pied kingfishers, which hovered 40 feet above the water like hummingbirds for minutes at a time before diving straight down to snag their unsuspecting prey.

After two hours of steady chugging, our boat passed a long calm stretch of water and rounded a bend, and suddenly the waterfall swung into view. Even from half a mile downriver, it was fearsome to behold—a glistening cascade of white fury that carried such force our boat could not advance against the current. This extraordinary power stemmed from the fact that, as Churchill explained, above the Falls the banks of the Nile “contract suddenly till they are not six yards apart, and through this strangling portal, as from the nozzle of a hose, the whole tremendous river is shot in one single jet down an abyss of a hundred and sixty feet.” Transfixed, we admired this sight for I don’t know how long before the captain finally turned the boat around and, with the surging current at our back, returned us to camp in half the time it had taken to get there.

The next morning, the jeep riders invited me to accompany them overland to the top of the Falls. Churchill may have been lubricating his tale somewhat when he claimed that the Falls could be heard from ten miles away, but they were certainly audible from five. When we finally clambered down to the shoreline the roar was fantastic, like the fiercest windstorm imaginable. In the last few hundred yards of its approach to the Falls, the Nile seems to sprint so impatiently forward that the foamy green water gets ahead of itself and leaps exuberantly upward, as if ascending an invisible escalator. Just before the fall line, the river separates into separate flows. The one feeding the cataract is over the edge in an instant, crashing down into the bubbling pool below. The others loop around a massive stone outcropping and supply a second waterfall, shorter but far wider than its famous brother. The spray, the din, the water’s irresistible force and volume are as overwhelming to the senses as the knowledge of its distant destination in Egypt is to the mind.

Murchison Falls remains a glorious natural spectacle, but only because Churchill did not get his way. Churchill, that incorrigible champion of industry, wanted to build a dam at Murchison Falls. Its “terrible waters” itched at his restless nature. They had to be put to some productive purpose: “I cannot believe that modern science will be content to leave these mighty forces untamed, unused, or that regions of inexhaustible and unequalled fertility, capable of supplying all sorts of things that civilized industry needs in greater quantity every year, will not be brought—in spite of their insects and their climate—into cultivated subjection.” Of course, the dam whose construction Churchill was advocating here would have covered up forever the very falls he had praised as one of the great wonders in all Africa. Prudently, he ignored this contradiction. He did seem to sense there was something unholy about his proposal, however. His reflections on damming the Nile were interrupted, he later wrote, by “an ugly and perhaps indignant swish of water” that nearly drenched him.