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April 30, 2000

Hitting the dirt

Eighth in a series

By Andrew Maykuth

ARUA, Uganda - The days begin to blur together after more than a week on the road.

"Tomorrow is Sunday?" Francis Kuria, the Kenyan driver who is hauling a load of American relief food, said yesterday. He looked shocked. His 21-year-old son, James, the assistant on the truck, had mistakenly told him it was Sunday. James shrugged at his error.

Not that it mattered much. There are no days off for a long-haul driver, except those imposed by customs delays and mechanical failures. Kuria was only concerned because he was nearing the end of his trek and he thinks he won't be able to unload his cargo on a Sunday.

Kuria, who began his journey on April 22 in the Kenyan port of Mombasa, was about 40 miles short of his destination, Koboko, a village in the northwest corner of Uganda. He is responsible for the first inland leg of a shipment of 35 tons of sorghum provided by U.S. taxpayers to feed refugees displaced by civil war in southern Sudan.

Kuria will deliver the grain to Norwegian People's Aid, a humanitarian organization that is contracted by the U.S. Agency for International Development to distribute about 9,000 tons of food to some of the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese displaced by the country's 17-year civil war. NPA will reload the sorghum onto smaller trucks for delivery on the difficult roads of southern Sudan.

During a heavy rain, children play under a downspout near the village of Nebbi. The region's rainy season is starting.
*View more photos from Day 8
It has been a long drive for Kuria, but fairly routine. This is the fifth time he has carried a load of relief food to Koboko. After he unloads his cargo, he will return to Mombasa on the Indian Ocean, stopping along the way to fetch a load of corn for a maize miller on the coast.

Kuria yesterday drove about 160 miles, starting the day in the village of Karuma, where he crossed the Victoria Nile above a churning series of rapids. He turned onto a dirt road, leaving behind the last stretch of asphalt highway in northern Uganda. His departure was delayed until 9 a.m. by the Ugandan army, which restricts public traffic on the region's roads to daytime because of ambushes by Lord's Resistance Army rebels.

After the Ugandan army gave the go-ahead, long-distance buses raced ahead, tilting frightfully as they sped down the deeply rutted road. The ruts zigzag from the left side of the road to the right, like a serpentine river channel.

The buses were followed by a few smaller vehicles and finally the tractor-trailers, which lumbered along at around 20 m.p.h., leaving modest clouds of dust because the rainy season has started and the roads are mercifully damp.

The route passed within the eastern perimeter of Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda's largest park. It is named for the spectacular cascade where the 200-yard-wide Nile is squeezed into a 7-yard-wide chasm.

But the land hardly looked like a game reserve. There were no large mammals along the road, other than the soldiers who live in garrisons of grass-roofed mud huts every few miles. Farmers from the region have retreated to the garrisons for protection from the rebels.

Murchison Falls was a favorite tourist destination in the 1950s, when the British colony known as the Jewel of Africa attracted a steady stream of foreigners on safari.

But much of the wildlife in Murchison Falls National Park was poached in a long series of civil wars - first to oust President Idi Amin in 1977, followed by a second rebellion led by the current president, Yoweri Museveni. Since Museveni's ascendancy in 1986, rebels have remained active.

The wildlife are making a gradual comeback, though most of the animals are confined to areas close to the river, which is teeming with hippos, crocodiles and birds. Elephant populations are slowly increasing, but black and white rhinoceroses were wiped out and remain absent from the park.

Another creature noticeably absent is the tourist. Its international reputation sullied by this year's mass cult killings and last year's rebel murders of tourists who came to see gorillas, Uganda has found it difficult to attract enough tourists to generate the cash needed to maintain the parks.

The lack of tourists is apparent in Murchison, where antelope such as Uganda kob and hartebeest are jumpy and flee when a vehicle approaches, unlike animals in Kenyan, Tanzanian and South African parks that graze undisturbed by the close proximity of humans.

As the dirt road continued along the park's northern edge, passing by villages abandoned because of the rebel insurgency, the landscape turned into classic African savanna of open, undulating grassland interrupted by acacia trees and borassus palms, which have conspicuous fanlike foliage.

The sky is huge, so expansive and limitless that two or three weather systems can be seen from a single place.

With Murchison Falls in the rearview mirror, Kuria crossed the Nile once again - the Albert Nile, which flows out of Lake Albert northward into Sudan, where it is known as the Bahr el-Jebel, or White Nile.

As the road ascended toward Nebbi, Kuria worked through the lower end of his 16-speed gearbox. A big storm unloaded overhead, filling the ruts with twin streams of reddish mud. The driver had to wipe the condensation from his windshield with a rag.

After the rain ended, Kuria passed young boys selling mangoes by the road and then fields of rich, black soil planted with tobacco and cassava before entering Arua, the largest town in northwest Uganda.

Kuria said he felt much better yesterday after complaining about flu symptoms on Thursday. He treated his sniffles with some pink cold capsules he bought from a roadside pharmacy in Karuma.

Kuria doesn't read English easily, which may be just as well: The package of capsules cautions that the medicine may cause drowsiness. "Do not drive or operate machinery," it said.

*On to Day 9

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