I know the key to writing is to simply begin; get pen to pad or your fingers on the keyboard. All the same writing today has not been easy. I could blame my busy schedule this week but also a bit of apathy and not a little confusion on where to actually start. So I decided to just start typing and see where that takes us. As Hobbit prudence warns at the beginning of J.R.R Tolkien’s “The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring”, roads are dangerous things. You follow one and it leads to another and another and you just never know where you’ll end up. Okay then, let’s start our journey about 16 years ago.
The year is 1999 and I am a diminutive boy of 13 in my senior one class at St. Charles Lwanga College (it is actually a secondary school) in Koboko, yeah, right there at the North Western corner of Uganda, bordering South Sudan and The Congo. Koboko was still a county of Arua then, not a district of its own. Matter of fact, people mention district names these days and I’m thinking, Is that even in Uganda?! Like for real? Manafwa? Back to the story; this was going to be the longest time yet in my life that I would be away from my family. Why did my dad decide to take me to a school so far away when I had never been to Arua except for a few visits to our village home in Maracha? Perhaps because that was his alma mater, I don’t know, I’ve never asked him.
You’d think I’d be sad to be going alone and so far away from the only place I’d known as home for all my life. Far from it, luckily for me, I was born with a healthy dose of wanderlust. A journey for me means new sights, new adventures, new stories, new experiences and definitely new friends. Of course, I missed my family a bit, especially when I was broke. Don’t laugh. You know the struggle was real. In those days travelling to Arua was a whole project. Not just the expense but the insecurity caused by the forays of Joseph Kony’s LRA rebels in the Murchison Falls National Park area made it something you had to think carefully through before starting. I think I got visited only once the whole year by my mom – and she didn’t even find me at school. My time on and off the school premises was split almost 50-50 anyway.
My first day at school was fun. That’s when I first met that funny guy Patrick Idringi now popularly known as Salvador. He was in S.2 and immediately took a liking to me when he found me in the Embassy Dormitory which he resided in – and more so because I was a new kid from Kampala since he had been to Kiswa Primary School. Being the story-teller he is, he narrated to me two movies in a single afternoon (Remember those movie narrator guys in schools? The ones that made you see it in 3D? Priceless!). His friend Problem Alex took a liking to me too but for different reasons altogether. He took me under his wing and being the clueless newbie that I was, I entrusted him with the keys to the padlock on my metallic suitcase. Dude depleted my supplies within two weeks!
Anyway, Patrick and I eventually fell out when I outed his friend and moved to Cifaldi Dormitory and then finally Tiger Dormitory, chief rivals of Embassy. In short, I was not loyal and I was an impertinent “njuka”, which is what nyongos or year ones were called there. I cared less, and I had some big form six footballer guy called Kizito who liked me and would protect me from anyone who attempted to intimidate me. I was tiny with an attitude, that njuka who spoke better English than many of my seniors and therefore couldn’t quite be teased.
Let me warn you beforehand that I tried to attend classes but secondary school effectively began in Senior Two for me. 1999 was pure unadulterated fun! A teen boy couldn’t have asked for more! Lessons ended at 1:30pm and after lunch we were free to go roam Koboko Town- just a stone’s throw away – as long as you got back by 6:00 pm. The school had the official and unofficial calendar. Allow me to introduce you to the unofficial one first; First term was for us to go to the villages surrounding the school foraging for Borrassus Palm fruit that locally is wrongly called coconuts. Second term, which is when the mango season falls was, naturally, for mangoes. There was a forest of mangoes near the Congo Border – about 4kms from school – that we called Kukuana Land (the name possibly was picked from that H. Rider Haggard novel “King Solomon’s Mines”). After lunch pretty much the whole school went on an exodus to Kukuana Land and the trees were so many that the rule was – No Sharing Of Branches! You ate, had your fill, and then carried some back to school with you in a backpack or kaveera. The total population of students was roughly 500 and very few, if any, ever missed the trek for mangoes.
We even had something of a free trade zone developing near the school. According to the rumours I heard, some boys would steal cassava from the school farm or teachers’ gardens, sell it to some women in the village near the school, and the women in turn boiled and sold it back to the students for breakfast.
Now for the official Calendar. First term was for athletics and second term was for football!. Athletics was never my thing. I played football a bit but I was never really talented at it. The school had about 4 football pitches and the most interesting one was called “Shauri Yako” which basically meant that participation was at your own discretion. Anyone could play there, wearing anything; whether you were barefoot, wearing spiked boots or those army boots with a thick sole and very hard metal at the front – a senior or a junior. Some guy was so rough that whenever he got the ball is when everyone else suddenly felt the need to go sit down and take a rest. If you could shine in Shauri Yako then you could be considered for the school team. Anyway after, as usual, beating other schools in the county like our arch-rivals Nyangilia SS against whom victory was always sweetest, we would travel to Arua Town for the District championships perched on top of our beloved green Tata lorry affectionately named “Mami”.
The district championships always took place at Barifa Stadium in Arua Town – which frankly speaking – is just a field in the middle of Barifa Forest Reserve. The main attractions were the noise, the fanfare, the colours of different uniforms of students from dozens of schools, the rivalry – excitement reigned king! The Ediofe Girls belonged to us “Lwanga Boys”, and the Muni Girls belonged to the Ombaci boys. Crossing those invisible lines was enough to instigate a scuffle between the rival schools. We didn’t win that year but boy was it fun! Disclaimer, I didn’t have any Ediofe Girl. Me I was still too young for that stuff. True story. It was our friend Karayi who wrote love letters like a Casanova even at such a tender age! He would let me proof-read them and I would literally hold my stomach in fits of laughter.
And then there were school events like the inauguration of new prefects where there were dance performances and one of the few times we were served bread for breakfast. In the local economy, the coolest guys were the ones who had the most Lingala dance moves. Of course we had the weekly bull dances every Saturday night in the main hall where we lesser folk could pick up some moves from the illuminati of this thing! The hall was only lit up with a few hurricane lamps since these were the years before electricity in Koboko so I remember there was a night some hater(s) dropped red pepper on the floor of the dance floor. Not a fun experience. Then there were those guys you’d see walking by the hall to the classes with a lantern, to read when everyone else was having fun. We called those “Ja-Warriors”!
This whirlwind of a year did come to an end. I said goodbye to the friends I had made that year as I prepared to head back to Kampala with a not so impressive report card and looked forward to yet another year of fun. I was near the tail end of the class in performance yet I had been top of the class or thereabouts in primary school. Of course my parents were not impressed and decided that I was not going back – no matter how much I protested. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was my first real experience of Arua. Maybe, just maybe, that is how I first fell in love with this place. Where did all these words come from? I warned y’all about starting journeys, see where this one brought us?