Beyond the Bike 2015/16 - Bamboo with a View.
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Stage 1: Kampala to Kigali -Taking Khalid Home.
Kampala (Uganda) to Kigali (Rwanda): 552km; September 13th - 19th.
On Sunday 13th September, we left Kampala accompanied by the KGB (Kampala Group of Bikers), Kasoma (bamboo bike maker) and his apprentice Khalid. It was such a pleasure to finally meet Kasoma and for him to see his beautiful bike being ridden through Kampala. Leaving the city was not the nicest ride, mainly due to the sheer number of heavy trucks but we were soon on the open road which undulated wonderfully through the countryside, every hill we went up we then had a similar length descent and thus a rest: my kind of hills!
Meeting Kasoma and the KGB about to set off.
We ended up with a core group of five cycling onto Namagumo, a village near Masaka, 130km from Kampala, just South of the equator, where we stopped for lunch. It was a pleasure to be joined by Rich Chapman, co-maker of the bamboo bike and Bryony, a softly-spoken, pretty and petite blonde, who had recently been the only non-Ugandan working at the Bank of Uganda. Stu jumped at the chance to have her take the back seat of the tandem (he says for the Economic conversation...) and so I then rode my 9th bike of the trip, as Rich was on Bambi!
Shouts of 'Mzungu, Mzungu' and 'How are you' became very common place; people used to slow down to take our photo and children often chased us along the roads
We stayed two nights with John-Paul Rutagarama, an agriculture student in Kampala but also keeper of his grandfathers' beautiful house in the hills above Masaka. This lodging came about from a very serendipitous encounter in London; last term Stu happened to have lunch with Michael, a supply teacher at Morpeth School. When Michael heard what we were doing he said his grandson would happily host us. J-P took the back seat of Thandie for a ride around the villages where we visited Villa Maria, the olderst church in Uganda. The original buidling dates back to the late 19th Century. When the rains came we sheltered in a different church and school that Michael is funding. Off the beaten track we caused quite a stir...it was very different from the main roads where we had people waving, taking photos etc. In these hills the children seemed terrified of us. John-Paul explained: 'You are possibly the first white people they have seen.' Amazing as we were only about 10km from the main road! But we still found children with smartphones although they had very little else.
A boy in the village who was very surprised to see us but happy to show off his phone. Stu, J-P and Khalid cycling around the banana plantations.
The school built by Michael with children sheltering from the rain and staring at us!
Dinner conversation turned to relationships between Rwanda and Uganda when we heard that the heir to the throne is half Rwandan; there are many Rwandans in South West Uganda as so many fled during/after the 1994 genocide (mainly either to Congo or Uganda). It turned out that J-P and Khalid both have Rwandan roots:
'Are you Tutsi or Hutu?'
' Good, me too'.
Big smiles all round. J-P was born there, lived through the genocide and moved to live with the Ugandan side of his family in 1996 to seek a better and safer future. Sadly his father was poisoned in 1998 - they still don't know why. His uncle (JB Rutagarama) worked as a translator for journalists in the refugee camps and then moved to the USA and made the famous film 'Back Home' telling the story of his return to Rwanda to find his family after the genocide. When we entered Rwanda a few days later, I thought back to these conversations many times. At the border was a poster advertising a $5,000,000 reward for information about perpetrators still at large. Then in Kigali we visited the moving genocide memorial museum and burial ground. Here we found J-P's relatives on the wall of names - three Rutagaramas were among the 250,000 buried at this site, around one quarter of the estimated one million Tutsis killed in 100 days in 1994.
Stuart and I then continued South West with Khalid as our guide. He is just 16 and studying Physics & Entrepreneurship at college. Mentored by and helper to Kasoma, he is a keen cyclist and has been on a training camp with the Kenyan Riders who are getting closer to competing on the world cycling stage and are coached by David Kinja, Chris Froome fromer mentor. Khalid dreams of being a professional cyclist. 'My dream is to cycle and win the World Championships, but a good bike will cost at least $500 and then I need the racing components, I come south to the hills to train as much as possible and I keep chickens and sell the eggs and work for Kasoma when I am not in school to try to save money. I am staying at school so that if I cannot get sponsorship I think I will become and accountant, but that would not be my dream'.
We visited two schools en route and Stuart even taught some economic lessons. At the first school (West College, Mbarara) we camped in the headmaster's garden. There, the students were so excited to see us, it was as if celebrities had arrived and they all rushed to shake out hands and one girl even kissed me much to the cheers and laughing of her friends...I am sure that was a bet! It turned out that we arrived in the middle of their mock O-Level examination but we were still ushered in to greet them! Then we visited PEAS Hibiscus High near Ntumgamo to find out more about how they use their Rumie tablets. The signs in both the schools were rather interesting...
Some interesting signs in the schools and looking at the Rumie tablets.
We kept heading south to Kabale: on this day the hills really started and although they were hard work, the amazing scenery more than made up for it. The heavens did open as they do most days around here and so we had a rather anxious wait shelthering from the rain at the top of the mountain - descending in the rain would have been dangerous but it was getting close to dark (and darkness near the equator comes along very quickly). Cycling in the dark would have been even worse. Luckily we made it just in time with me cursing Stuart for our extended lunch break!
We were then lucky enough to spend two night in Khalid's childhood home. He kept saying we would go to his Grandfather's house. It turned out that his grandfather was buried in the garden but it is still very much his house, as he explained: 'My grandfather owned all the land here but my uncles sold it off and so we are left with just this house now...my three aunts, two uncles and their families live here and although my mum lives in Kampala, they still keep her room. My uncles have sold so much but we don't know where the money has gone.' It was in his mothers room that Stuart and I slept and we really appreciated the very generous hospitality of his family, even down to them boiling us water for a shower - standing in the corner of the house courtyard in the dark pouring water over each other hoping the aunts would not come out of their rooms!
We had a well deserved rest day in Kabale and met Khalid's cousin, Mohammed Ali, who is, of course, a boxer! His father, Khalid's uncle was the national champion boxers his day and Mohammed is trying to follow in his footsteps.
Khalid in his home, with two of his aunts and cousin, Khalid and Mohammed - 'Strong arms and strong legs; boxer and cyclist'.
Our rest day was a great example of "TIA" (This is Africa). Kalid told us another cousin would drive us to the beautiful Lake Bonyonyi, the deepest lake in Africa at 6000ft deep. We met his cousin who said it would be about 10 mins before his car was ready; we waited and waited; we called the cousin several times and each time we were told: 'I'm coming, 10 minutes!' After nearly two hours, with darkness drawing closer, the rain starting and plenty of stuff to sort out with the bikes we decided to give up. As we were walking back to Kalid's house, we met his cousin who took us to the garage where his car was being fixed. Again it was '10 more minutes!' 10 minutes later he really did turn up. With a sense of relief, we got in the car but predictably, it broke down 500m later. We were about to give us a second time but shouts of 'you cannot come to Kabale and not go to the lake' stopped us and we finally got there. It is very impressive but the 10 minutes we had there didn't do it justice, especially with the rain. Something to go back to, hopefully!
Then it was the final leg to Kigali: Khalid and Mohammed escorted us as far as the border: it was a mission trying to get across but we made it! We waved emotional goodbyes to our young guide with promises to keep in touch. He is a young man who will surely succeed if he if given the chance. Is it only a matter of time before a (black) African gets worldwide recognition in cycling? Stuart's idea is to get an African riding Paris-Roubaix on an African made bamboo bike. Maybe Khalid will be the first...watch out for him!
We had one lovely long climb, with some super fit children running up faster than I was cycling and then it was freewheeling (or should have been if it were not for the headwind) all the way to Kigali.
First impressions of Rwanda: absolutely beautiful, very green, very hilly and so clean, tidy and quiet...it was actually quite unnerving to have people just walk over and stare, without the usual cries of 'Mzungu, Mzungu'! After a few days rest days we plan to head north again to visit Team Rwanda at their cycling compound in Musanze - watch this space!