Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Mpangos and porters

Whilst walking up Mount Elgon there was plenty of time to think. Strange juxtaposition of lives. We were paying our porters £2.50 a day to carry our heavy rucksacks (sometimes on their heads), fetch water for us, wash up our things, and (so I was reassured) carry us back down the mountain in the event of us injuring ourselves. I felt a mixture of emotions. Guilt, obviously. Yet they were delighted to have the work. And our guide was going to get his first Christmas day off in 8 years as we were coming down Christmas Eve and he would have to spend Christmas Day ‘washing his uniform’. Any food we left over they promptly ate. And of course there was the opportunity, never to be missed by a Ugandan, to talk politics.
Sitting round a bonfire one night at 3500m with 15 young Ugandan men was a privilege (we were sharing the tin shack with a party of 11 path clearers). They were faultlessly polite and helpful. They dried our wet clothes, made us tea, cooked our strange food for us (rice and a packet curry – not bad actually). From black carrier bags they’d carried up the mountain they produced dried beans, onions, dodo (a sort of small leafed spinach), a cabbage, three tomatoes, curry powder and ghee, and proceeded to cook a nutritious meal from scratch.
In the countryside if you pass a male older than 3 they will be carrying a machete (mpango / panga). It’s a multipurpose tool. I was reminded of the Rosmellyn awayday where we had to think of as many things as possible to do with an item from our handbags. (for those of you who were there, remember the credit card – to remind yourself of your name, guess the number on long car journeys, for self defence, go for the throat…)

Things I have seen one used for.
to chop wood
to cut a walking stick
to hack yourself a path through dense vegetation
as a strimmer
as a lawnmower
to finely shred cabbage/dice an onion
as a toaster
as a walking stick
as a poker
as a chisel (furniture making)
as a plane (furniture making)
unfortunately as a weapon. We all know about the horrific events in Rwanda in 1994 when many of the 800,000 killed were butchered with machetes. One of my first mornings here on the ward in Ishaka was spent trying to sort out a 12 year old who had been attacked with a machete by her 16 year old brother and badly wounded. It had happened 12 hours earlier, no-one seemed to know why. He was in police custody but she had had to wait until daybreak, when her stepmother persuaded the village elder to bring her to the hospital (no-one had any money). She was badly injured, cold, and terrified. We had no blood for transfusion, so after resuscitating her, cleaning her up and assessing her wounds we packed her off to Mbarara (in a taxi!) in the vain hope that she might see an orthopaedic surgeon who may be able to save her right hand….

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