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I don’t remember when I developed the urge to travel. Did it start when I took my first film job in 2008, which saw me visiting several districts in northern and north-eastern Uganda? Or, did it germinate when I was still a child?
My father was a newsagent. He sold both local and international newspapers. So, in an age when the only news sources were government-owned radio and TV stations, even before I was a teenager, and even though we lived in a small town, four hours away from the city, I had access to Newsweek and Time. It was like a magic doorway to another world. Across the street from where I grew up was a video hall, where I watched Bollywood, Chinese and Hollywood movies. My father was also a communist; with a whole shelf full of Soviet Union and Maoist literature. Soon, one of my daydreams was travelling to China to become a Shaolin master.
Today, one item on my bucket-list is a trailer or lorry road trip, from Mombasa to Kinshasha. This daydream was maybe, because I grew up next door to drivers of big vehicles. Chui, Swahili for leopard, thrilled us with stories of faraway places; how he ate monkey meat in Kinshasha, how jinni kidnapped him and imprisoned him under water in Mombasa, how lions nearly ate him in Tsavo after his trailer broke down. His most fascinating one was how he drove a truck on a tree branch. The tree was big, and grew across a river. This river had no bridge, so the locals grew the tree branches across the river to work as a bridge. I believed all his stories, and the way adults listened to him, I think they too believed him. In those days, the news was mainly through government-owned media. So these drivers who saw the world beyond Tororo town were certainly more believable than Radio Uganda. In those days, travel was limited in the country. There were insecurities due to civil war, endless roadblocks on roadways, bad roads, and lack of money. Travel for pleasure was unheard of. If people traveled, it was for funerals, weddings, education, business or employment.
By the time I was fifteen, my urge to see the world couldn’t contain me in that small town. I wanted see all those places I read about. I wanted to dance in those places I saw in Bollywood movies. I wanted to explore the paradise I saw in the Soviet Union literature.
I took all my savings, and sold off some of my textbooks, and escaped from school to go to Nairobi city, over five hundred miles away. I had written a novel, and wanted to sell it to a publisher, become famous. But I was also thrilled by the city from what I had read in John Kiriamithi’s My Life in Crime. I wanted to see Nairobi, to live in its streets, maybe even end up a writer-gangster.
The publisher rejected my book without even looking at a page.
“Go type it,” the receptionist told me.
I realized I had made a big mistake. I lived in the streets for about a week, before good Samaritans gave me a bus ticket back home.
The next chance I got to leave was when I got admitted to university. I stayed in the city for three years. The thrill to see it never swept me, as there weren’t any great Kampala stories. Even today, though it is now my home, I’ve hardly explored it. After university, I went back to my small town and worked as a social worker. I have explored unknown places, deep inside rural areas. The landscape expedited that itch to wander. But those jobs also were located in one place, years at a time. Boredom always set in after a few months. I wanted something that would enable me see the world. I thought writing would do it. I wrote desperately, hoping to get a big break. Then reality set in. I could never make money from writing.
In 2006, I ventured into film. I apparently had a gift for filmmaking, because in a couple of years, I got my first major commission. UNICEF asked me to make a film on Uganda’s efforts to achieve the millennium development goals. I travelled to several districts with very different cultures. One morning I would be among the Acholi, and the next, I would be among the Karamojong. This was the dream I had been waiting for.
I quit my salaried job that same year. In 2009, I volunteered to work in Nepal, where I lived for two years in the far western part of the country. I introduced local organizations to videos for social change. One of the films I made won awards. And I was always on the move, from the Far West to the East, to the hills and to the foot of the Himalayas.
When I returned to Uganda, I gained success as a writer-filmmaker. I am often invited to attend workshops, film festivals, or events. I should be thrilled, for I am finally living my life as I envisioned when I was a child, making a living out of telling stories and travelling to see the world.
But these events don’t come as often as I would wish. Often, I wake up with an intense feeling of boredom. With a desperate urge to jump on a bus and vanish down the road, going wherever it goes. I want to do the big-truck drive from Mombasa to Kinshasha, a road-trip from Kampala to Cape Town, a tour of old coastal towns from Lamu to Maputo, but I can’t. Though I don’t have family obligations, and despite a decent income and being self-employed, something holds me back from traveling for pleasure. Somewhere at the back of my mind I still think travel should be only for practical reasons.
Maybe, being an artist, the income is never certain and I have to watch how I spend it. Even if the invitation is to a place that may not be on my bucket list, I know that I can always get a few extra days to satisfy my wanderlust and explore a new place with my words and lens.