The Ugandan Goat Who Became A Harp That Nearly Stranded Me In Kenya
By Luke Maguire Armstrong

One Ugandan goat's musical history, from a Kampala market to the USA via some Egyptian Air pocket lining.

goat skin harp

He never heard the music his body posthumously made. He had not a groan of inkling as to what his hide would become after his passing. In life he was, after all, just a goat. His interests were likely limited to the song of fresh grass, the melody of drinking from a cool stream on a sun-baked day, shitting without shame and sexing the other goats.

It was an impractical purchase, given that I had to lug it around Uganda then Kenya and then fly it back to New York. It probably has a name, likely several in different Bantu dialects, but a Google search did not prove immediately helpful in finding its appellation and the man in Kampala, Uganda who sold it to me simply called it a goat skin harp. So I have taken to calling it The Goat Skin Harp—the same harp that led Moses from Egypt Air to grab my boarding pass and bark at an airline agent to "Cancel his reservation!"

Some people are attracted to shiny objects, others to ones that whirl and wiz with electronic consciousness, and some prefer old hardcover books. Those with the lightest packs concern themselves mostly with accumulated memories and sighted panoramas. I, it turns out, am a sucker for goatskin harps. Prior to owning The Goat Skin Harp, I purchased three smaller, hand-sized goat skin harps from Kenya's Masai market. I resolved firmly as a midnight bus pulled across the Kenyan-Ugandan border: no more musical instruments on this trip.

Temptation in Kampala
Alas, a few days after my arrival I found myself in the market near Kampala's theater, where dirt crunches beneath a relentless sun. I was beneath a mango tree smoking a cigarette that tasted like dust. I waited while Cathy, a Canadian from my hostel and fellow Kampala voyager who had come with me, drifted from vendor to vendor, turning over soap stone sculptures, woven wonders, and the usual tourist market kitsch.

Because I did not want to buy anything, I made small talk with a few lunching Ugandans eating their plantains and potatoes. Despite a lifetime living beneath it, they still complained about the sun's scorch. Then I caught site of it. Its nine strings were drawn taut like summer smiles. I pointed at it and asked the Ugandans with me a rather redundant question in a market: "Is that for sale?" They assured me it was and one of them hurried to find the man selling it.

I had seen a similar instrument played the night before at a concert featuring traditional Lugandan tribal music. The man who played the harp had hunkered over the instrument like he was riding it, plucking confident chords while keeping the beat on its bongo sounding body.

Uganda travel

The First Step To Becoming A Maestro Is In The Owning
He was a maestro, I had thought, that man I'd seen the night before. I imagined myself one day playing like The Maestro. I can hold my own on the guitar, but really, who can't? What would it be like to play musical venues in New York as a Maestro of the Goat Skin Harp? That was essentially what I was asking when I asked him how much it cost.

The price was completely unacceptable. Maybe for the first time ever, I wanted to bargain up. At 2,500 Ugandan Shillings, (US$25-ish) it seemed a price completely out of sync with any proper law of supply and demand. Surely such a beautiful work of practical musical art should cost more than a trip up the Eiffel Tower.

"Why is it so cheap?" I asked a market man the one question no one wants to hear. The man told me it had belonged to "great" musician who had fallen on tough times and needed to sell it. The harp was an orphan.

I vacillated and measured the dimensions with my hands. There was no way this was going to fly as luggage checked or carried on a plane. I told the man this regretfully, that it just was not possible for me to purchase it. He assured it was no problem, and explained how its long neck could be taken off when the strings were removed so it would pack down to a fourth the volume. There was nothing to be done but to reach for the cash and pay the man and watch him pack it up in carefully taped newspaper. He even taped a rope handle on it so that I could wear the compacted instrument as a satchel.

Uganda air travel

Cancel His Reservation!
I know very little of the harp's history before the date of my purchasing it. Its backstory could be play-at-wild-wedding-dancing-while-bodies-gyrate-around-the-fire colorful. Or it could be sit-in-the-corner-of-a-hut-all-day boring. I know that since it has come into my life it has accumulated a few stories worth telling, the most choice of which was the almost-got-me-kicked-off-an-international-flight one.

I arrived early at Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and took a seat in the outside café. When the evening gave way to rain, I lugged two large bags to check, a small carry-on, and the goatskin harp through security to the ticketing counter.

The woman at the counter was all smiles and as she handed me my boarding pass I thanked her and started to walk away. Then up came Moses, the manager. He asked briskly, "What is that you are carrying?"

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