A Snapshot of Uganda

Field Location Article

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I’ve not done this before so don’t expect too much, but all of my photographic location articles been penned post event, back at home in front of my desktop computer, complied at leisure. This one however, is from the field. As I write I’m at a camp based in North West Uganda along the Eastern shores of Lake Albert. I’m sat in my cabin looking out over thatched mud huts of the local village, situated on a grassy flood plane, about 600 yards inland of the shoreline, with the blue mountains of the Congo in the distance on the western shore shrouded in early morning mist. The morning sunlight is golden, the frogs are still croaking in the ponds from last nights downpour, the village is quiet and the scene is tranquil. It’s just before eight in the morning.

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Actually I’m at work, my day job so to speak, employed as a geologist during the drilling of an exploration well looking for oil. The well is nearing completion, my tasks are almost done and I’m winding down, getting things in order before my departure and a well earned rest in a few days time. I’ve done this sort of thing most of my working life, spending several weeks at a time away from my family and home, followed by several weeks at home. It may seem odd to some, but to me and my family this is our normal life.

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I digress however. The reason I write is that this location is quite beautiful and I thought I’d like to share a few pictures with you. This is not because they are of any particular photographic merit, but just to render a brief snapshot of this small part of Africa and let you see why I’m so lucky to be able to work in a place like this. A glimpse into an area where the tourist will never see; a glimpse into the lives of real Africans.

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It’s been a rather busy trip for me this time and the long hours had taken their toll. Although I always tend to bring a bag of camera gear along, for the first 3 weeks or so I was unable to find time nor the energy to even leave the compound never mind get my camera out. It remained firmly in the bag. The locations I’d worked on my last few trips had been in thick bush and forest and none had provided anything of significant photographic interest from a landscape and wildlife point of view. I had expected this location, which not far from the last one, to be the same. I was wrong, and sadly I didn’t bring a tripod nor any ND grads this time, something I now regret. It’s very easy to get blasé, just do your job, and want to get on that plane home sometimes. So, photography here was going to be very much of the tourist kind, just snapshots.

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Over the last 2 or 3 days, my workload has reduced somewhat and I have had time for several walks through the village and down to the lake and to explored the shorelines and small lagoons in between. At the moment most of the small lagoons and ponds are full of water hyacinth and each one is a resplendent carpet of pink blooms. In places the blooms skirt the shoreline too. Heron, Egret, Open-billed Stork and Cormorant occupy the braches of one of the sparse trees in the late afternoon sunlight by the ponds. Marabou stalks and Squacco Herons are often to be seen wading the ponds hunting for frogs, and African Jacana can be seen flitting flimsily across the waters vegetation. On one occasion a couple of resplendent Grey-crowned Cranes were spotted dancing a courtship ritual in the late evening light. The mornings and evenings bring squadrons of birds travelling to and from their perch to the Victoria Nile delta just a few miles north of our location, a place of plenty and a haven for wildlife.

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The beach is narrow and none existent in places, but still provides a place of fun for the local boys, a party of which decided to follow me and a co-worker on one of my walks. My camera provoked interest and a source of great amusement especially when shown their pictures on the display. The villagers here are predominantly fisherman, as there is little sign of cultivation and small wooden fishing boats are scattered here and there, in twos and threes along the sandier sections of the shoreline. Some fishermen can be seen at work in the late afternoon, not far from the shore, but by far the greatest activity happens at night, especially around the new moon, when the black of night is littered by polka dots of yellow oil lamps on hundreds of fishing boats scattered across the lake. The fish is good too, as it often ends up on our plates.

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Village life is very simple here, and to be honest the villagers have quite a meagre existence. There is no running water or electricity, no modern luxuries, and every morning and evening we see the women and children carrying huge plastic jerry cans of water on their heads from the nearby well. One evening a child, a young girl who couldn’t have been more than about five years old, and particularly small, dropped her jerry can. She was all alone. It was so heavy she couldn’t even lift it off the ground. I watched from a distance as she struggled several times trying before she ran off leaving the jerry can on the ground. She returned a few minutes later with an older girl, who was probably only two or three years older, and not much taller. But between the two of them they lifted the heavy, water laden, jerry can back on to the little girls head and off she waddled as best she could. No western child could do this, but here it’s part of life.

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Home for the locals is a simple one room mud hut with a thatch roof, dirt floor and a small mud shed or outhouse which serves as the toilet. Food is cooked on a small clay oven or an open fire. Some I believe may have gas stoves but I see little evidence of that in the village nearby. Most of the children run around in ragged clothes, the very young ones are often naked, and some unfortunately display distended stomachs, a sign of malnourishment. Many infants seem very small , especially short and under developed for their age, although the older children seem happy and much healthier than the young ones. There’s obviously no nutritious baby food available here. Uganda (Apr 2010) 005Compared to western standards of any order this is a harsh existence, yet the people seem happy, good mannered and only inquisitive of their new temporary neighbours. We have experienced only happy smiles and no animosity; something I doubt would happen in our world should you find a drilling rig at the end of your garden!

On Sundays the women and children (didn’t see any of the men) can be seen wearing their finest walking off to church in an adjacent village. The majority of children are barefoot even then and I guess for many (if not all) they probably only have one Sunday outfit. The women are colourful, with brightly coloured wraps and dresses, some adorned with bangles and beads, one with a blue and white checked hat. Sometimes the women can be seen washing clothes in a large metal basin, others go down to the lake. The clothes are then scattered on the thatch roof or bushes to dry. A few of the huts are adorned with some simple wall paintings, one which caught my eye, with two white hearts. A love nest for someone perhaps?

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It’s the rainy season here and nothing provides more drama than stormy skies in Africa, especially at sunrise, just after a night storm. We have experienced some incredible sunrises here on this trip. Unfortunately, I’m often very busy at that time of the morning as the oil industry has a peculiar habit of having to produce daily reports at six am. Bonkers I know, but that’s how it’s always been done and it doesn’t look set to ever change. Consequently, although I get to see the sunrise, I seldom get photograph it. On top of top that we also have a daily meeting at 7:30am too.

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The storms, which can occur at any time of the day, most frequently seem occur in late afternoon or evening, and can bring torrential downpours. They don’t last long but in that brief time the ground rapidly becomes water logged and floods, leaving a muddy mess. It at this time I’m pretty glad I’m not in a mud hut.

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In other places I been in Uganda you’re often asked for water bottles or quite often money, but there’s little evidence I see of that here. All the boys asked of us was a football. I so wish I had one to give to them.

One comment

  • Ralph Nordstrom

    John, the light on your first boat photograph is really quite stunning.

    April 30, 2010

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