Remembering Beginnings

Himself is writing a blog at the moment. A blog about the start of the university on the Equator. He’s a bit matter-of-fact. Here’s the ‘behind the scenes’ account.

July 1993 On Campus

Yesterday, we went on a guided tour of the university campus, or what will become the university campus. At the moment, I would describe it as a cross between a building site and a derelict site. It really is in a bad way. The Uganda Government has been running a National Teacher Training College here for the past number of years and maintenance was obviously not a top priority. I don’t want to tell you about the state of the kitchen attached to the students’ dining hall. Just think bad, very bad, and, oh yes, you could also think smallish mammal that was responsible for a major plague in Europe in the fourteenth century. It was that bad. The Man wasn’t as shocked as I was and assures everyone that it will be fine in no time at all. I’m not so sure I believe him.

The student halls of residence were also in a bad state (think derelict squat – no, think demolition site). Some students had obviously been cooking with small charcoal stoves in their rooms – I wouldn’t have blamed them given the state of the kitchen, but it didn’t do anything for the decor of the rooms. The toilets hadn’t been working for a long time because there is no water, and they were simply unspeakable.

The bush had encroached a fair bit into what I have been told was once a beautiful campus and it was now hard to tell where the paths were. Some colleagues in the tour group started muttering about snakes, mosquitoes, chiggers, and fleas, but I wasn’t really listening at that stage. I was thinking about the impossibility of getting the place into the state of even being able to pretend it was a university by the first week of October. No way. Impossible. Nada. Nothing doing. A real Sysiphusian task here.

It was really depressed and went home for lunch with a very heavy heart. All the build-up and excitement of the previous months vanished in just two short, hot hours! I got one of those blue airmail letters and tried to fill it with happy thoughts for the people in Donegal but I knew my father would be able to read between the lines. As I sat in the garden (big word) looking down at the Lake, my thoughts went back to the terrible things that had happened in Uganda since Independence in 1962. A year previously, I only knew two things about Uganda: Idi Amin and Raid on Entebbe. If Churchill had been right about Uganda being The Pearl of Africa, and I suspect he probably was, then the magnitude of Uganda’s downfall was greater than I had ever expected.

I had read about the Obote years of 1962 -1971, the awful Amin years from 1971-1979, and the even more awful Obote 2 years of 1982-1985. I had read about the expulsion of the Asians in 1972, the Tanzanian invasion in 1979, the Bush War of Museveni that culminated in his seizing power in 1986. I had boned up on the country statistics and found out that the level of HIV/AIDS is shockingly high, and that malaria and diarrhoea kill far more children than is believable each year. So I knew that Uganda’s internal conflicts had exacted a high price, but I hadn’t given a thought to the practicalities of everyday life now that the country was stable. It was a very sober me who ate supper that evening while mulling over the events of the past few days. I was still up for the challenge, but I knew now that it was going to be a hell of a lot more work than I had expected when I blithely packed up my lecture notes and Factor 20 and told all my friends that I was off to Africa (said as Meryl Streep) to start a new life in the sun.

The next day I was feeling a bit better and went exploring and have found out that I might very well be crossing the actual Equator a good number of times every day. After you pass The Equator on the Kampala-Masaka road, you come to a small village called Kayabwe. That’s where you turn right, off the tarmac road and onto a murram (Americans would say dirt) road that snakes its way up the hill to Nkozi. This road (in Donegal we would probably call it a schuck) crosses The Equator a few times on the way up but it doesn’t make you dizzy or anything because you don’t know you are doing it.

To mark this geographical speciality, there is a small, really weird-shaped building on campus called The Equator monument and they say that’s where the line is. Whatever about it being home to The Equator, it is also home to millions (well, probably a couple of hundred) bats and the bicycles of the builders and kitchen staff. I don’t know why they don’t park them somewhere else because they have to clean a mountain of bat shit off the saddles and handlebars before they can go home at five-o-clock. But maybe that’s a small price to pay for a cool seat.

Anyway back to the imaginary line. Just think: I could be teaching in the Northern Hemisphere, having my lunch in the Southern Hemisphere, and having my Nile Special right on it. That’s probably why I don’t know whether I’m coming or going when I’m trying to get home at night.

Yesterday, I went for a walk down the hill trying to see if I felt different at any point of the journey. The moment I got closer to Nkozi Trading Centre just down the road from the university gate, about a million kids appeared from nowhere, pointed at me, and starting shouting: “Mzungu, Mzungu!” I thought I had put my frock on inside out, but I hadn’t. So I smiled back at them and returned their excited waves while continuing my investigative perambulation. The kids and their excited incomprehensible (to me) chitter chatter followed me through the village and down the hill like a cloud of colourful mosquitoes. Some of them were brave enough to reach out and touch me and I began to imagine how Jesus felt when he was working a crowd.

“Mzungu, Mzungu! How (pause) are (pause) you?” “What exactly is Mzungu?” I thought. Some kind of logical deduction convinced me that it was probably the local hello, so I thought I give it a try myself and kept on walking while muttering “moozungu” incessantly and smiling like an ad for Colgate. It all got a bit much for me after a while so, having taken a few photos of Lake Victoria about three kilometres away as the crow flies, I turned tail and headed for home at a brisk trot with my colourful cloud still trailing after me. I managed to lose them just before the main gate to the cries of “Bye, Mzungu. Bye, Mzungu”, at which point I realised that the strange word couldn’t have been hello after all. Where on earth is logic when you most need it?

“Mzungu”, The Man explained in a kindly voice to soothe my nerves, “means white person. It’s a kind of greeting and they always shout it at white people. The kids around here probably haven’t seen very many before and certainly not many like you”.
“Why? What’s wrong with me? My frock isn’t on inside out! What?”
“It’s nothing to do with your frock. It’s more to do with the fact that you’re dressed to the nines and they were probably hoping for a few bob to be tossed their way from the rich white (well quite red) lady who was mad enough to be wandering around in the midday sun.”
I’ve since tried it a few times in leggins, a straw hat, and sunglasses in the cooler evening hours, but my cloud appears to be getting thicker. I may well have to take my walks in the car for a bit until all the fuss dies down.

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