Sunday, August 14, 2005

From Fort Portal to Kampala in 10 Million Years

Entebbe, Uganda
Sunday, August 14, 2005

To be alive is to change. Actually, to exist at all is to change. If nothing changed, what evidence would there be of the passage of time? The Navajo have no nouns, only verbs: for example, they know only of "mountaining", which is a process of earth and rock rising and then eroding and eventually disappearing.

Standing on a high hill near Fort Portal, one sees wave after wave of steep hills and valleys (photo) coursing west to the foothills of the Ruwenzori Mountains. The high Ruwenzoris, higher than the Alps, remained completely invisible during our 10 days at Kasiisi School. Only the foothills showed themselves once in a while.

Ten million years ago, the Ruwenzoris did not exist. What is now the Congo Basin stretched all the way across central Africa, along the Equator, to the coast of what is now Somalia, Tanzania and Mozambique. The very heavy rainfalls found now in the Congo carried on winds all the way to Africa’s east coast. Deep jungle spanned the continent. The Ruwenzoris rose some 10 million years ago as two contintental plates pulled eastward and westward away from each other under the surface of East Africa. The rending opened the eastern and western sections of the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. This rift extends northward all the way up to and including the Dead Sea. A huge dome of magma welled up between the Rift Valleys in Africa to create the high elevations of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Volcanoes were, and are, everywhere across the landscape. Gigantic pressures and gradual movements folded the steep hills around Fort Portal, pushed the Ruwenzori high into the sky, and left a wide shallow basin now filled with Lake Victoria, the second largest lake in the world after Lake Superior.

These processes continue today. In our brief lives we cannot see the changes, but they continue at the same rate as they have for millions of years.

There are active volcanoes today, the Virungas, along the border between Uganda and Rwanda some 75 miles south of Fort Portal. About 10,000 years ago, numerous volcanoes erupted at and very near what is now Kasiisi School, covering the this region with rich ashes that were compacted and then eroded into extremely fertile soil. These events happened just a few moments ago in geological time, and well within the collective memories or myths of the peoples who lived here at that time. (It would be interesting to research what those collective memories or myths are.) Many of the volcanic cones here are now filled with water that is hundreds of feet deep, forming the beautiful crater lakes of Kabarole. Among the most beautiful of them is the one at Ndali Lodge, which is perched on a knife-edge volcanic rim 13 km southwest of Kasiisi (photo).

The continental plates under East Africa continue to pull away from each other. There is rising and falling now between the Rift Valleys. Volcanoes will erupt again near Kasiisi in a few hundreds or thousands of years. The people here will have have to adapt, to change their ways or quite likely their homes, to adjust to the forces at work around them.

Ten million years ago there were many kinds of apes, or their precursor mammals, along the Equator in Africa, from coast to coast, well adapted to the deep rain forest now found in the Congo but not now in East Africa. The rising Ruwenzoris became a barrier to the eastward movement of clouds and rain. The "rain shadow" on the east side of the Ruwenzoris, not far from Fort Portal, gradually became a relatively dry savannah much like the Serengeti Plain of nothern Tanzania. This was a enormous and challenging change for the apes. Many kinds of ape no doubt became extinct because their food sources and safe-haven trees changed or disappeared. Some apes survived, through chance adaptations in behavior or location.

Between 5 and 7 million years ago there was a split among three species of apes: the ancestors of today’s gorillas, the ancestors of today’s chimpanzees, and our own ancestors. The split very likely occured in western Uganda or western Tanzania, since these were along the boundaries of the changed climatic and geographic conditions that forced change among all affected creatures. New species form under the twin conditions of isolation and environmental variation . Today’s landscape, a mosaic of rain forests, savannah and mountains, differs from the environment of 6 million years ago mostly in swaths of human-tilled open land that have replaced rain forest.

A few miles away from Kasiisi School, in Kibale Forest, about 1,500 chimpanzees still live as they and their ancestors have lived for 6 million years. Another 70 miles to the south, in Bwindi, gorillas (photo) and chimpanzees still live as they have for equally long. There are about 5,000 total chimpanzees left in Uganda. A square kilometer can support about 2 chimps. Each square kilometer in Fort Portal’s district now supports about 300 humans. Near Bwindi there are as many as 700 people per square kilometer. Chimps are under extreme environmental pressure wherever they remain across central Africa.

Chimpanzees and gorillas continue to evolve just as humans continue to evolve, though probably at a much slower rate. The apes who eventually became humans began to walk on their hind legs about 6 million years ago. About 2 million years ago this line of beings began to craft tools from stone. Chimpanzees and gorillas also use tools, but they do not fashion them in the complex ways that humans do. About 150,000 years ago, fully modern humans began migrating out of this region of Africa to all lands around the globe except for Antarctica. The descendents of these humans are strongest and most rapidly moving agents of change in Fort Portal, across Uganda, and indeed over the whole planet.

What we see, then, in the landscape around Fort Portal is a profound mix of the effects of change. The very ground is brand-new geologically and could change any day. The people here are descended from others who migrated here thousands of years ago, most likely coming from the west. Bananas are the most common crop here by far, but people brought them to this region from points east only about 2,000 years ago. People also brought long-horned Ankole cattle here from somewhere in the north and east: these cattle look very much like the ones painted in ancient Egyptian tombs. Maize, potatoes and tomatoes arrived here from the New World no more than about 300 years ago. Explorers and missionaries showed up sporadically starting in the early and mid 1800s. Colonization came in the late 1800s. Around 1890, representatives of several European powers drew the political boundaries of what is modern-day Africa – and not one African person was present for this event. Most of the large trees around Fort Portal, including eucalyptus and many kinds of pine, are foreign and were planted for shade or for use as firewood and building materials. The British created massive tea, coffee, cotton and sugar plantations in Uganda, not because any of these were indigenous or part of the local agriculture, but only to use inexpensive labor for highly profitable commercial ventures. Plantations are alien to both the culture and ecology of this region. Thousands or tens of thousands of workers were uprooted from their home places and became tied to the plantations, not to their own people. This pattern persists.

Uganda became a free nation only 43 years ago. War has torn the country several times since then. The pace of change has increased in recent decades. Today’s people at Kasiisi, Fort Portal, and across the rest of Uganda face perhaps the most unsettling and demanding kinds of change that humans in this part of the world ever have.

The road between Fort Portal and Uganda’s capital Kampala was finally fully paved for its entire length only this year, in early 2005. The distance is 300+ km, somewhat more than Boston to Albany NY. Driving eastwards out of Fort Portal towards Kampala – "down shadow" from the Ruwenzoris and the rain forests – you pass massive tea plantations with Kibale Forest looming in the distance beyond them. Chimpanzees avoid entering and crossing tea acreage because they are exposed to danger and there is no food there. There are few vehicles on this excellent road early on a Wednesday morning, because the road has not yet had time to generate the flow of goods that it can support.

Going further east from Fort Portal to Kampala, the land gradually slopes downwards by some 2,000 feet of elevation. It becomes drier and less heavily covered with vegatation. The climate remains remarkably pleasant. The air continues to be hazy and pungent from land-clearing fires (photo), from fires for creating charcoal that sits in burlap bags along the road awaiting transport to Kampala, from smoke from brick-making kilns, and from cooking fires. Along the road are large granite outcrops – called kopjes – like those around Mwanza in Tanzania. The Kampala area is characterized by numerous small hills that are few hundred feet high and are separated by a few km from each other. Kampala is built on seven hills, like Rome. The road deteriorates as you approach Kampala, because this section is much older and has already generated a heavy flow of goods, which has led of course to much wear and tear. Kampala is a riot of color and motion and diversity. Internet cafes are everywhere. All manner of people, even small farmers and motorcycle taxi drivers, use mobile phones. Large commercial airliners – 767s and A330s – roar over the city as they take off from the airport at Entebbe, 35 km south. We had a superb lunch in a near-brand-new hotel. This is a modern, yet not quite modern, world.

Uganda’s economy is currently about 95% agricultural, most of it subsistence, and about 2% manufacturing. How will Ugandans prosper in the midst of rapid global evolution? Education is the most powerful weapon of change in the world, said Nelson Mandela. The people of Uganda, as a whole, must become keenly aware of exactly where they are, and exactly what they need to do in order to find and hold an enduring place on our planet.


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