The inaugural Mountain Life Adventure Grant helps birth a mountain bike club in Uganda
The crew dubbed me “Kwuom”, meaning “the one with the wind in his hair” on my last night with them. Being a white-skinned mzungu from another continent is one thing, but in Karamoja, where most outsiders are clean-cut employees of NGOs or religious institutions, the sight of a man with shoulder-length hair was enough to make me stand out. To accompany my new name, my new friends also performed a head-to-toe makeover, dressing me in contemporary Karamojong fashion complete with rubber jewellery and the standard shoes made from discarded tires.
To be so welcomed into the tribe was incredibly humbling and made me feel that my time in Uganda—a month of teaching trail building techniques to a group of guides in the town of Moroto—had made a positive impact. I had arrived in the area hoping to share my knowledge and experience from growing up in the Sea to Sky, an area that has seen immense financial wealth spring from mountain biking over the past 25 years.
Recognizing there was more to life than his chaotic surroundings, Shongz quit drinking heavily at the ripe age of nine (after starting when he was five) and focused on his ambition on education and pursuing his passion of sports and making music.
A community of nearly 15,000 and counting, Moroto sits in the far northeast corner of Uganda adjacent to Mount Moroto. This extinct volcano is the highest mountain in the region (3,000m) and is part of a chain protruding out of the savannah to bookend one side of the Great Rift Valley, which many consider the birthplace of human civilization. Moroto is the largest town in Karamoja, a region of 300,000 primarily pastoral communities bordering Kenya and South Sudan. After Idi Amin’s brutal dictatorship ended in the late ‘70s, thousands of guns flooded the area and decades of bloody violence ensued.
A successful disarmament campaign to exchange rifles for oxen and farm equipment created roughly a decade of stability, however Karamoja remains one of the poorest regions of Uganda. But development is coming fast and a new highway will mean easier access to the globalized grid of communication and trade. For a region lacking education and basic resources, shifting from relative isolation into the 21st-century global economy has brought many cultural changes in only one generation.
Shongz, aka “Julius,” is one of the guides who gave me my new name. His story mirrors that of his rapidly changing homeland. Recognizing there was more to life than his chaotic surroundings, Shongz quit drinking heavily at the ripe age of nine (after starting when he was five) and focused his ambition on education and pursuing his passions of sports and making music. At 25, he now hopes that a reputation of stability will boost tourism to Uganda and allow him to focus on creating wealth for his community. “We understand. We are trying to wake up as the youth,” he says. “And tourism is how we can make a small difference.”
The rural communities surrounding Moroto had a glimpse of the biking world in 2017 with the inaugural Tour of Karamoja. At the time, this four-day mountain bike ride was the largest off-road cycling event in Uganda. The tour was founded by the late Paul Sherwen, a road bike legend who spent over 30 years as a commentator for the English broadcast of the Tour de France. He was a dual citizen of the UK and Uganda, and as a boy visited Karamoja on hunting safaris with his father as a part of the khaki-clad aristocracy. From a young age, Sherwen fell in love with the land and people of Uganda. As stability returned to the country, he used his clout as an international sports celebrity to bring positive attention to the region. The first Tour of Karamoja in 2017 saw 23 participants.
For 2018, the event based its operations on Mount Moroto, setting up on a flat outcropping near the Tepeth tribal community of Musas. Thanks to a Whistler connection with one of the tour organizers, I was invited to lead trail crews to build an entertaining two-and-a-half day stretch of riding. I agreed without giving much thought to the challenges of developing a trail network in under a week on foreign soil with a novice crew who did not speak English.
We hired 25 people from the community and used basic hand tools to refurbish centuries-old trails connecting some of the villages in the Moroto highlands. Rough footpaths became streamlined bike trails that could hold speed on the descent and provide enough thrill and challenge to keep riders entertained.
The workers found their groove within hours, developing skills from rock armouring and bench cutting to shaping berms and creating flow at an impressive pace. Three of the Karamojong guides for the event served as translators for the Tepeth locals, but much of my communication came nonverbally—hand gestures and sound effects to mimic what I envisioned, with my crews either nodding in agreement or looking at each other in smiling bewilderment.
Trail building in the midday equatorial sun would have felt like punishment if we weren’t creating tangible rewards every step of the way. To me, the reward came from sharing a love of riding and trail building; while the workers enjoyed a job close to home where options were traditionally sparse. Climate change and industrialization has not been kind to Karamoja and the traditional Tepeth lifestyle is in jeopardy. Many communities have resorted to burning trees and selling the charcoal at markets to purchase food—and children are often forced by circumstance to tend their community’s goat and cattle herds or forage for whatever food they can find along the hillsides. Trail building became one of the first opportunities to earn money in a region where money is a relatively new concept.
The 2018 tour drew close to 75 participants, mostly white expats who made the journey from Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. Riders of all ages and abilities found trails to match—from a four-hour guided ride to a simple ten-minute loop. Judging by the smiles of those who attended, the event succeeded in its efforts to provide people with a fun weekend full of unique riding and cultural discovery—and it put Karamoja on the map of Uganda’s small but loyal cycling scene.
At 62 years old, Paul Sherwen unexpectedly died in his sleep, just six weeks after the 2018 Tour of Karamoja. His passing dealt a huge blow to the momentum and interest in the region as a cycling destination. I recall what he told me as we packed up camp on the last day of the Tour of Karamoja,“if we are going to make this a long-lasting event, it’s gotta be because of a very special relationship we have with the local Tepeth.”
While Sherwen’s vision was admirable, it lacked one key element that I saw as a barrier to success: none of the locals had bikes of their own.
And so the Karamoja Mountain Bike Association (KAMBA) came alive. I joined five locals I’d befriended during the tour to hold an official meeting and write a constitution with the simple mission statement to “Connect in Biking”. Seeing the success of mountain biking back home in North America and the promise shown in Karamoja, I felt that any successful bike community has to have people out riding the trails every day. To have proper influence, the guides and trail builders needed to unite; forming one voice to advocate for trail infrastructure and resources. The first order of business was to get the group access to bikes to use and share within the communities.
Thanks to the generosity of the Sea to Sky mountain bike community, that objective was realized in late 2019. Upon returning home with my new Karamojong wardrobe and name, I put out a call for neglected bikes in good working order. We had enough money and material to send two shipping crates of bikes, spare parts and tools to my KAMBA friends. Since then the group, now six members strong, has been active in getting others to ride with the eventual goal of providing afterschool programs as an incentive for those who focus on their studies.
Vicky Namukhula is a KAMBA founding member with a newfound passion for biking. “When I was a child, it was culturally believed that girls are born for marriage materials and housekeepers,” she explains. “For girls, it was very hard to go to school. Boys are the ones who inherit their father’s wealth.”
Instead of choosing a path of servitude, Namukhula worked hard to save money and studied cooking for tourism. She now works at Kara Tunga guest house (who put me up during my stay) as head chef of Moroto’s first restaurants with “mzungu” food such as pizza and french fries along with the more standard posho (maize) and beef stew.
“I got involved with KAMBA so that I can easily access a bike,” Namukhula says, “and to be an example to other girls who fear riding or are not allowed to ride bikes.” She is now a regular on the weekly rides that bring local kids out to gain access to the freedom and health benefits that bike riding provides.
It’s an exciting new narrative for the locals of Karamoja, and this very article you are reading is now helping to move the story along. The 2019 Mountain Life Adventure Grant enabled KAMBA
members to purchase the land at Musas that served as the Tour of Karamoja base camp. Eventually the plan is to use shipping containers to create a clubhouse to serve as a basecamp for KAMBA’s homegrown bike industry. The containers will arrive full of more donated bikes from the West, along with extra tools, spare parts, medical equipment, clothing and anything else the Sea to Sky biking community might be willing to share.
It would be naive to think mountain biking can solve the myriad social problems that Karamoja faces. The area is still very much behind the curve when it comes to education, disease, hunger, alcoholism and barbaric cultural practices such as female genital mutilation. Many NGOs and aid organizations have rolled back their support since arriving in the ‘80s, leaving the locals dependent on handouts and with little promise of change to come.
All this presents an even stronger case to bolster tourism in a struggling region. The simple reason is the financial benefits of bringing new wealth to the area’s operators and service establishments such as food and lodging. But equally important is the exchange that happens when cultures interact, and that is very much a two-way street.
Across the world, it has been proven that access to a quality bike can make a significant difference to people’s lives. Perhaps the lessons learned through KAMBA will help set a model that will use mountain biking and active tourism as an economic driver to more regions in Uganda. By sharing knowledge from our experiences, it is possible to bring tangible hope to a community that lacks resources but has an abundance of passion. Many who are fortunate have a desire to share—they just need the proper vehicle to extend their generosity. What the new breed of mountain bikers are building in Karamoja is that exact possibility. —ML
To learn more about KAMBA, visit karamojabike.org
To help get another shipping container sent to Karamoja, head over to the Kickstarter