On this cold Sunday morning usually reserved for rest and worship for the Christian folk where I belong, I had to be particularly prepared to move not only across two countries but two African regions, I am based in Uganda, East Africa and sure I was traveling to West Africa to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the town of Aru, in Oriental province.
The Bishop of Madi and West Nile diocese Charles Colins Andaku having struck a strong cordial working relationship with his Aru counterpart Dr. Georges Ande Titre had a function to officiate, as a journalist I was invited to cover this function together with other colleagues from Uganda and Congo.
But it was more than just a religious function, I was going for, perhaps religious tourism would have been the best term to describe my journey.
Setting off on the smooth tarmac at 7:30am East African time from Arua town, 15 minutes was enough to usher us at the Vurra customs border.
Shortly though after arrival, the first signs of a busy day appeared, the officials here were so kind, (not sure because our cause was religious!) they took us through the processes, stamping from office to office, the final on the Ugandan side by the immigration department and then off into Congo we proceeded.
And oh, before we could resume this second leg of the journey, a young man 20-30years (my guess) appears with threats thinking Mr Martin Bileni, the communications officer of Madi and West Nile diocese with whom I was travelling is a “Boda Boda”.
He asks Bileni to remain at the border so he can carry me to my destination. Reason? Martin is Ugandan and he has no right to do Boda boda business in Congo.
Shocking and surprising, I was left wondering whether this Lugbara-speaking young man knew he was harassing his brothers across a boarder created by the colonialist.
Soon he would know Martin was not what he thought, off we were into unknown territory on this fairly maintained murram road, the thought of our neatly clad suits through this dusty road evaporated shortly as it dawned on me that the country was at present entangled in the fight against the deadly Ebola virus. We had to wash hands both at the Ugandan and Congo sides as a preventive measure. But exciting as the journey seemed, what kind of risk were we taking? I thought.
Seven exciting Kilometres deep past the sparsely populated Aru town and then suddenly question after question I asked Martin as a gigantic Cathedral appeared, a sigh of relief followed as indeed martin confirmed this was our destination.
“We had a successful ride” I thought, the young man at the border had made me think otherwise.
Next we are ushered by a man dressed in a blue suit, (I was later told the Congolese have a taste for bright colours for their suits), this man was perhaps the only other Congolese I heard speaking English apart from the Bishop of Aru diocese. I must admit I admired the Bishop, he spoke French, English, Kiswahili, Lugbara, Lingala and would he speak their language too if other tribes came for this ordination?
Another surprise soon hit hard when the ordination candidate’s tribes were announced as Kakwa, Lugbara, Alur and once again I thought are we really in Congo? These are some of the major tribes in West Nile and our brothers!
If any one cared to find differences between the same tribesmen in two countries, French and English was this perfect difference, even the way the Lugbara in Congo spoke Lugbarati (language) had French influence in the way they speak this mother tongue, did they think the same about us who travelled from Ouganda? (Their pronunciation for Uganda).
In the Church, I couldn’t be more privileged than sitting next to the equivalent of an area Member of Parliament in Uganda, this popular ‘Depute’ as the Congolese referred to him was another “brother” thanks to the introduction session.
I purposed from this time on to understand the Congolese parliamentarian with a Lugbara origin, what he thought about his fellow tribesmen across the borders in Uganda, the endless complaints about harassment, corruption and the like at the borders despite these being the same people.
Later I got this treasured chance and in the words of ‘depute’ Daniel Baniyo Debo, he said;
“I agree we in the government still have a lot of problems, we as a country are coming from wars and now our president has ushered democracy, the church should help us to develop this more. The church should also ‘wash us’ because ‘our hands have a lot of blood’.
“I agree we have thieves amidst us and we should all stand up to the problem and do something. Today we are here in Church and people travelled across the borders, who was harassed?” he asked.
“The most shaming thing, Baniyo continued is, we all fought in Lugbara language because we are the same people. We are urging that there should be meetings so that we in Congo and those in Uganda sit and talk and take out those that are propagating corruption and confusion between us”
His comments came at the backdrop of passionate appeals from the two Bishops of Madi and West Nile diocese and that of Aru who earlier established great friendship between the two dioceses.
The prelates urged governments to follow suit so that the peoples of the two countries could freely do business and connect as it were before the colonialist. I thought I owed this trip largely to their friendship.
This same ordination service had another big delegation from Nebbi diocese, after all one of the ordained was their own daughter.
The reception after the Church service was the biggest single thing that impressed me, all these people hugging and freely mixing and eating their common meals of Pondu (sauce made of cassava leaves), Enyasa (cassava bread) and other traditional foods seemed exact like a function back in my home town of Arua.
I could easily tell that goodbye was hard to say even amongst us the journalists but a single reminder of the limited time given to us by the immigration officials in Congo left us with little option and that’s why shortly after the Bishop of Aru gave gifts to his visitors, we jumped onto our motorcycle back to Uganda.