It is a very exciting time to work with Mango Fund. The impact-investing fund based in Kampala, Uganda was started in 2011 in an attempt to fill the “missing middle” - a reference to the large financing gap left between the micro-finance organizations and large institutional lenders. The vast majority of Uganda’s SMEs (small/medium enterprises) are left capital starved as the large banks consider them to be too risky for investment.
Over the first few days, Grace and I conducted interviews with local businesses during the day and enjoyed intensive chess training sessions in the evening. Grace is the Ugandan national chess champion and travels the world to compete.
Karamoja is the most remote place I have ever been, and I was eager to explore. After finishing up with my interviews in the town of Kotido, I borrowed one of Mercy Corps dirt bikes, went off the main roads, and seemingly stepped back in time. I placed a star on my starting location on Google-maps and cruised along a curvy dirt road that seemed to extend out towards the distant mountain range. After riding for a bit, I stopped to take a picture of these women and their village.
When my eyes left my camera, I was startled to find a Karamojan man frantically waving his arms and sprinting towards me. My first instinct was to jump on my bike and escape through the fields, but even from a distance I could tell he was smiling widely and seemed very eager to meet the mzungu (white man) that had improbably wandered out his way. His steps became more cautious as he came closer, and I patiently waited for him to approach. I introduced myself with my Karamojan name given to me earlier that day, Iriyama (the one who welcomes all) Lokiro (the one that brings the rain) - but no matter how many creative approaches I took, I couldn’t get my new friend to share his name. After a while we both tired of the exercise and I decided I would call him George.
George pointed at my bike and then out towards the mountain. We understood each other for the first time, a good first step. I nodded in agreement and pointed for him to jump on the bike behind me. After a while, he managed to clamber on behind me but insisted on reaching around me to grab both handle bars. I shook my head in disagreement – trying to explain that we couldn’t possibly drive while he held the throttle. I pointed for him to grab the metal backing on the seat, but he disagreed and opted to hug me firmly across my chest. We were finally ready to go. I started the bike and headed in the direction of the mountain. The path that started off relatively smooth quickly turned rugged. George began to hold me so tight I could barely breathe and he laughed wildly as we splashed through shallow creek beds and swerved through the thorny underbrush.
A short time later I hopped off to photograph a picturesque village with the mountains as a backdrop. It became clear that George didn’t necessarily have a destination in mind and he sat confidently and patiently on my bike. Some local children had worked up the courage to approach and introduce themselves byFor the second time on my journey, I was startled as they started screaming in delight and rushed to line up and pose for a picture again. The kids and I continued to giggle as we practiced our new game of posing for a picture, rushing to view the picture, and screaming in delight during photo viewing. During these few minutes, George had begun curiously tampering with every button, knob, and lever on the bike. I, unlike George, am no motorcycle mechanic and when I returned, I had no clue how to start the altered bike. People frequently talk about how dangerous the Karamoja region is, but this was the first time I felt vulnerable. I was now on foot in rugged terrain several miles from our small Karamoja town with no water and completely reliant on my GPS. I did have my small “dumb-phone” with a bit of service, but I was very intent on not calling my hosts at Mercy Corps to come rescue me.
George astutely realized he had done something wrong and insisted on running and pushing my bike as I sat and steered. The photo-kids loved this idea and they pushed George while he pushed me. Our conspicuous parade attracted the attention of all that we passed, and several others came to join. We continued along for some time until we hit a large creek bed & I hopped off to ford the stream. I think at this point my friends tired of me and when I looked back across the stream, everyone had mysteriously disappeared. In what will ultimately be an anticlimactic ending to my afternoon adventure, I hopped back on my bike, located the emergency cut off switch that George had engaged, and cruised back to Kotido, Karimoja.
I had thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon adventure and continued my explorations whenever possible as I traveled throughout the region:
When returning from our agricultural visit, I persuaded my Mercy Corps friends to take a detour. We drove through the remote Kidepo national park and took a game drive until we were surrounded, and then pounded, by a heavy storm.
|We stayed for several days in the town of Kabong, a rock climber’s paradise. Regardless of my discretion, most climbs ended in the town pausing to wave and call out to the “crazy mzungu”.|
|I continue to ride out and wander whenever possible.|
Thank you for reading!
Until my next tough week on the job ;)