People often use the phrase ‘falling in love’ when they talk about Africa. I can’t say I was in complete agreement with this as our bus slowly slid into the muddy ditch at the side of the washed away track. All my irrational fears were playing out and, as I do in any situation like this, I laughed. Looking from the metal pole, threatening to shatter the window near my head, to the overpacked bus, I was willing someone to reassure me that this would not be the end.
Having been in Uganda for around four days, I liked to think I had become accustomed to the heat, the men lining the roads with their guns poised and the distant, unfamiliar smell of burning sugar cane. It was a sunny morning and next on our itinerary was the Itanda Falls, a spectacular waterfall situated on the world’s longest river, the Nile.
As we piled into the rust-speckled bus, I took a seat next to the window with my camera balanced in my lap. I shifted my body, trying to avoid the out-of-place springs. Uganda only has one main road running through it and, of course, the Itanda Falls was not accessible via this road. The bus rattled in its frame as the driver turned off track. I prised open my window, but it jarred. So, squeezing the lens of my camera through the gap, I steadied my grip as the bus, with almost no suspension, crashed in and out of the pot holes that cluttered the road.
The air in the bus was humid, saturated with a fusion of pungent, vinegary odours. Dust from the track began to tan my hands, wrapped around the top of my camera which was now hanging out of the window in an attempt to document the journey. A lone chicken clucked at me from the side of the road before turning and wiggling back towards the flimsy tin roofs of the huts that were set back from the mud-track – almost like he knew what would happen next.
It was then that I felt the first drop of rain. It landed warm and dull on the top of my hand. I ignored it and carried on filming. Bruised clouds began to close in on the bus; the space between the sky and land slowly diminishing. I wanted to capture it to share with my dad when I got home, but then a second droplet of rain turned into a third, and when I couldn’t keep count I thought it best to bring the camera back through the gap and shut the window.
The road quickly turned into an orange stream. Cows and goats continued to suck on stray patches of dampened grass, whilst our driver continued towards the Itanda Falls. With the window now closed, the dusty fumes merged with the humidity-induced sweat. I watched as the sides of the roads seemed to crumble away under the onslaught of the Ugandan rain bullets – the bus grinding to a halt and threatening to crumble down with it.
I looked towards the girl sat beside me, her hair plastered to her damp cheeks. As the wheels churned beneath us and the bus refused to move she grimaced, before whispering, “I hope my mum invites Ben Foden to my funeral.”
“It’s OK,” an older gentleman sat towards the middle of the bus said, perhaps sensing our fear. “No need to panic, we are fine.” His voice was calm and steady.
We were certainly not fine. We were stuck. That’s when the singing began. A deep but young – slightly American, slightly Cornish – voice from the back of the bus started it off and it wasn’t long before the rest of the bus had joined in with a rendition of Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.’
My confidence in the driver improved as he eventually pulled off a 360-degree turn. However, in less than five minutes, this confidence was teetering on the edge of a ditch thanks to his decision to drive around a broken-down car that had been blocking the single track. Slowly, the bus – now with two wheels in the air – cushioned itself neatly into the ditch. My face was plastered to the window, watching the bus sink further into the soggy ground. It was then that I noticed the long, metal pole protruding menacingly from the mud. It was heading straight for my window. With each drop of rain, the pole seemed to get closer to piercing the plastic that my forehead was pressed against.
“OK?” the driver called in a calm voice.
A sea of heads lifted in front of me.
“Careful,” he said, quietly, as though his voice might cause the bus to sink further.
I curled my hands around the top of the chair in front of me, inching myself into the aisle to follow everyone else off the bus.
We stood huddled under a precarious tin roof, hiding from the rain as three local boys – no older than ten – appeared out of nowhere and made straight for our bus.
With their feet hanging over the edge of their flip-flops, bare against the sodden ground, they worked together to push the bus out of the ditch. I watched on, sheltered from the rain, wanting to help, but my insurance said ‘no’. I looked down at my feet. Dry. I looked across at the waterproof jacketed Brits. Dry. I looked back towards the bus, as the driver revved the engine and the three young boys – wet – pushed the bus out of the ditch with all their might.
Wandering back over, I suddenly wished I had paid more attention to the Swahili phrase book my dad had given me. Instead, all I could do was smile, wave and plead that the world would be kind to those boys.
Warily, we clambered back onto the bus to continue our Uganda travel. I sat with my forehead pressed against the window once more, this time watching as the three boys stood in the rain and waved us off.