Storms From Congo, Travels in Zombo

I have no idea what life is like in Congo. I know it has had a brutal civil war raging for years and that it is a little hilly, but those are very much abstract pieces of information not fleshed out by personal experience. One thing I can tell you for free though is that there are some spectacular storms emanating from within its bumpy border. These things are behemoths, multi-pronged monsters heaving with lightning and with thunder which makes the marabous vacate their trees with panicked clankings and cawings. This is one such storm, easing out over Zombo District (newly carved out of Nebbi District).

Men sit outside kiosks in Nebbi town as a storm emerges from the hills towards Congo.

I went to Zombo on Wednesday, and unfortunately was only able to spend a single day there because Arua (our nearest fuel) ran out of diesel. It surprised me for a number of reasons (although I seem to say that about everywhere these days). Paidha, the largest town, shows as a blip on maps. You drive out of Nebbi and straight up into steep hills on rough murram roads. One thing I have learned here is that you can tell an awful lot about a place before you arrive simply by looking at the roads. A flawless hard-packed road will lead to a small sleepy town, while an aggressively-potholed mess with tyretracks in the ditches will lead almost certainly to a bustling trading town. Paidha is just that. The road is truly terrible, a lorry swallowing trial with intermittent patches of sharp rocks, and compounded by recent rains from the aforementioned storms. It winds through hills which are not so much high as steep-sided, with inclines which feel like Landrover testing sites. But after a long bump along the spine of a ridge you take a few sharp turns, down a sudden slope and there’s tarmac to smoothly bring you into the town centre.
Paidha town is not huge, but certainly bigger than I ever imagined. It was market day on Wednesday so the crazy was in full swing, shattered avocados in the road and people selling salted Nile perch the size of my leg. I dragged the students round the market for a while because it’s a great place for two things- first, the idea of the war being over is excellently illustrated by the free movement and active economy required to have a market of this size, and second, it’s an interesting place to deal with some of the tougher aspects of people photography. You are jostled and heckled, pushed and pulled and through all of this you must somehow extract images which are not only not too busy but also interesting too. And all of that without posing or paying anybody. I had no camera at this point, so here’s one of Fred’s shots.

Traders and shoppers throng round a truck waiting to be loaded, Paidha market.

From there we moved to a coffee buying house, where small-scale growers come with their sacks to have them tested (moisture content), graded and bought. A kilo of organic beans goes for somewhere round $2, making a sackful a nice little earner. The man in charge explained that with coffee there are no set seasons, just peaks and troughs, so unlike tobacco it provides year-round income and employment. The latest peak was beginning and the place was a hive of activity, making interesting viewing for somebody who is as ardent a coffee-lover as me.
After that experience we headed out into the subcounties to visit a few sites of interest.

A coffee grower in Zombo with beans ready to be husked.

The first was the site of a new electricity generation project. West Nile is at present powered by a heavy fuel oil generator in Arua, but it is hoped that this new site will make that system redundant and enable round-the-clock power for the region. It seems pretty innovative too. I’m no engineer so this explanation is virtually guaranteed to be deeply flawed but here goes: a 15metre high dam will form a small lake, from which half of the water will continue down the original riverbed while the other half goes whizzing off along a pipe. Due to the topography of the region, the pipe will head along a slight plateau before descending sharply down a hill to the powerplant at the base. I can only assume this is to give it added oomph. At the powerplant it will separate into two streams, both spinning turbines, before being dumped back into the original river a little dizzy but otherwise unchanged. It should be on-stream soon despite a few setbacks.

A surveyor is protected from the sun by his assistant, with the Zombo dam under contruction in the background.

The little remaining part of the day was spent on a flying visit to St Aloysious School, a school started by missionaries back in the colonial era and still functioning today, albeit with a new admin block, the old one having been burned by the students during a strike. After a swift stop to see the state of a bridge deeper in the hills (not great, you’d have to be a braver man than me to drive across it) we had to turn tail and head for Nebbi again. But I would recommend Zombo to anybody who wants to see a very unchanged part of Uganda.

Students at St Aloysious studying in the library. Both want to be engineers.

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About Muzungu

I’m a Uganda-based freelance photographer (and occasional writer) working for a broad range of clients including NGOs, newspapers and magazines and development agencies. My work has taken me across East Africa, South America and Europe, and previous clients include USAID, the World Bank and the East African. I also work on personal documentary projects in my spare time. If you’d like to hire me or to know more, please feel free to get in touch.
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