By Richard Drasimaku
At the remote north-western end of Uganda, is a small trading centre of Salia Musala that the dwellers call their town.. It is a place where Uganda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo meet.
The colonialists, according to the local people, had placed three stones in the shape of a traditional African home to show the meeting point of the three countries.
This explains the name Salia Musala, which comes from two Kakwa words — Salia for cooking stones and Musala which means three.
The stones are not visible today, but any resident can identify the point they believe is where the three countries join together.
It is no surprise that a person sleeps in a house in South Sudan, while their neighbour in the next house sleeps in Uganda.
For instance, Susan Onziru escaped last year’s M18 rebel insurgence from Rumu in Congo to live in South Sudan, 30 metres away from a Congolese army checkpoint. Her daughter Hadijah Alumu is attending school at Mena Primary School in Uganda.
The residents are mostly people of the same clan and culture, but are still facing the ramifications of the 1884-1885 Berlin conference that balkanised Africa into random smaller entities.
Making up Salia Musala are five shops in Congo, five in South Sudan and six in Uganda, punctuated by the many cone-shaped grass-thatched huts.
To the authorities, Salia Musala might be a playground for smugglers who easily manoeuvre through the three international borders to evade control measures.
But to the locals, Salia Musala tells the story of hardships, poverty and disease. On Sundays, the community gathers under a fig tree, about four metres inside Uganda, to wait for Pastor Wayi from Congo to come and preach.
No social amenities
There is no source of clean drinking water; people fetch water for domestic use from River Kaya.
The children in the area go to Mena Primary School, about three kilometres inside Uganda. It enrolled 640 children last year coming from the three countries.
The nearest health facilities are Oraba Health Centre II and Keri Health Centre II, which are five and six kilometres respectively inside Uganda.
“When my children fall sick, I give them pilopilo (a local herb) because the health centres are very far,” Anite Atai, a mother of five, says.
She says her eldest child is 12 years old and the youngest is seven months old, but none of them has ever been taken to a health facility since their birth.
Her sister Mary Atai laments that when they brave the roughly 23km trek to Koboko Health Centre IV, they arrive when the queue is so long that they end up going to buy medicine from drug shops in the town.
The major things that can be found in plenty at Salia Musala are foodstuffs such as groundnuts. Some traders have to drive all the way from Kampala to buy the groundnuts, sometimes when on their way back from Juba.
Despite the challenges, the level of harmonious coexistence among the residents is unprecedented. You do not need permission from anyone to cross over to the other side of the border.
In fact, until a resident tells you, a visitor can hardly tell that three countries share the trading centre.
To show the border between Uganda and South Sudan, Iddi Fadhul Baiga, the LCII chairperson of Nyoke Parish in Kuluba sub-county, Koboko district, stood between two grass thatched huts that are barely one metre apart.
Trying to put one leg in each country and facing the setting sun, Baiga said the house on his left w where his authority as well as that of President Yoweri Museveni ended, while President Salva Kiir’s authority started from the house on his right hand.
River Kaya starts about 100 metres east of these huts, making the major physical feature separating the two countries.
The border between Uganda and Congo is clearer due to a bumpy security road constructed by Uganda.
It protrudes a few metres into the South Sudan side.
The road ends suddenly and no car can drive beyond a certain point since the road splits into two narrow footpaths.
There is no check point on one of the smaller routes proceeding further north into South Sudan. The second route branches off into the thickets of Congo and it is where the Congolese soldiers that form the only security presence here erected a check point.
These soldiers are humble and friendly. They buy alcoholic drinks from the Ugandan shops and mingle with the residents freely.
Uganda People’s Defence Forces’ Kifua Wazi detach is roughly two kilometres from the trading centre, while South Sudanese security forces are absent. There is no police presence in Salia Musala.
The town falls under Koboko district. The district chairperson, Hassan Saidi Nyinya, suggests that the three governments should construct a pillar or monument at the tri-point and develop tourist centres there.
Nyinya says the district will utilise programmes like the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund to provide safe water for the population.
The arc of undulating hills on the Congolese and South Sudan side of the border make impressive scenic views from Uganda.