Author Archives: Deirdre Carabine

About Deirdre Carabine

Expat Irish academic living and working in Uganda for the past twenty-five years, at first right on the Equator, and lately in the capital city Kampala. Recently retired and now an independent researcher on medieval philosophy/theology and consultant for IT in education.

Kwarantini in Kampala

Currently as of 4.4.20, 48 people in Uganda have tested positive for Covid-19. All these were already in quarantine or self-isolation having arrived at Entebbe airport from various parts of the globe in mid March. No Covid-19 related deaths have been registered. To the best of my knowledge, no tests have been done in the general public arena. While these low numbers may be a good sign, the fear of quarantine has led many recently-returned travellers to avoid it, even escape (as five people did last week – now jailed for their recklessness). This double digit figure will probably rise as more people are tracked, tested, and quarantined. Although less than 2000 tests have been carried out country-wide, Uganda has an excellent track record in dealing with viral outbreaks and illnesses. However, Covid-19 is not Ebola; it is much more sinister because of the existence of asymptomatic cases. We have yet to see the virus in the community. And fingers crossed it will not reach that point, but we don’t really know. In a country where malaria is prevalent, doctors’ consultation fees are high, and pharmacies sell most drugs without prescription, at the first sign of a high temperature, most people will simply self-medicate for malaria and continue life as normal. I think that’s how Covid-19 could spread in Uganda, possibly because of those irresponsible persons who avoided quarantine.

At the beginning of all this dreadfulness in other places, even before Uganda’s President Museveni gave the lockdown and curfew orders six days ago, The Man and I were already staying home, only venturing out when necessary, and wearing masks and gloves. I thought of it as a kind of adventure: hunting and gathering in difficult circumstances. That feeling soon gave way to a mild frisson of terror, and I had a bit of a wobble when we were first locked down. The goal now has now become staying alive in frightening circumstances.

Yesterday I was thinking about the words people I hear on the wireless for this time of lockdown: quarantine, cocooning, sheltering, isolation, hibernating, staying safe … . When I think of an older person cocooning, I immediately think of them wrapped up in soft fluffy blankets on a comfy sofa with a fire lit. And sheltering? For me that conjures up holing up under a tarpaulin until the rain has stopped. But right now, whatever we call it, I am happy enough to be locked down for my own good, provided I have food for the canines (and ourselves, of course). As members of the privileged lot in this country who have phone banking and can order food online, we can survive well for the foreseeable future. Many are already suffering from lack of food and essential medicines.

But a kind of lethargy has overcome me; I get through each day fairly OK but doing a lot of nothing much. I’ve seen some people’s lockdown goals that are bulleted beyond ten items, all of them lofty pursuits like losing an unrealistic number of kilos, writing that novel, learning a new language or a musical instrument, even giving up alcohol! Pardon me, giving up alcohol? It’s one of the things getting me through to 6pm each day without losing it entirely. And so I haven’t done any of those things I thought I would a few weeks ago. I really wanted to master Clair de Lune but just haven’t got the mental oomph to get down to it. I wanted to continue reading Robert MacFarlane’s wonderful Underland, but it sits on the table accusingly, dust gathering on its cover, bookmark static. I’ve stopped looking at the news before bedtime and thankfully the bad dreams have stopped. But keeping up with the progress of this strange life form that blasts everything in its way is in some way compulsive.

And in Kampala, despite the lockdown, strange things are afoot. Three days ago I wrapped myself up and set out for the 1km walk to the nearest group of shops for amoxycillin and hand sanitizer as well as bananas and beef for the pooches. The light nearly left my eyes: it was business as usual in the trading centre market. All public transport, private transport, and motorbike “taxis” have been banned by presidential directive, but most of the motorbike taxis (bodas) I passed called me to jump on. Were they crazy? I hesitate to get on a boda at the best of times because they scare me; I grab the guy around the waist and hang on for dear life – they love it, of course. Everyone else just jumps on and starts checking their phones; some women even sit sideways like gentlewomen on horses in days of yore. On the main road into town, private cars with passengers (also forbidden) were also motoring along, and trucks were aplenty, all in all not terribly different from every other day – although I must admit it was easier to cross the road because the traffic wasn’t just so crazy!

In the food market, sellers jostled with each other for business. I bought my bananas and beef in jik time, all the while trying to back away from people who crowded around each stall. It was a nightmare. At the pharmacy, the staff were trying to enforce social distancing, but the peeps weren’t having it. I put on my best teacher voice and did a prima dona-type repetition of the presidential directive, but just got eye rolls and shoulder shrugs. Let me tell you, I legged it home like the clappers, abandoned my gutties at the door, stripped, and jumped into the shower. Even after a goodly amount of water had swirled down the plughole I didn’t really feel clean so I showered again with Dettol soap. A bit excessive maybe, but I’ve been keeping up with what is happening in Italy, Spain, and the US – the peeps in the local market probably haven’t been that scared yet!

Kampala is a very social place, and its inhabitants love to party. Weekends can start on Thursdays, and Monday-morning start times vary greatly, so it’s hard to get your head around physical distancing, not going to the pub or nightclub, and staying home with the family. And spare a thought for the people living in the slums, those who live from hand to mouth and have lost their livelihoods as cleaners, shopping mall staff (all closed), hairdressers and barbers, casual labourers, non-food shop workers, boda riders, bus and taxi drivers … . While government has set up food distribution points for those in need, this will may well be abused by the distributors. Even MPs have been asking for cash to “help fight Covid-19”. How, I can’t imagine! When the slum dwellers in Kampala have no clean water and no money to buy soap, if this virus gets into the community Uganda is snookered. Some of Kampala’s slums are built in swamps where disease is already rampant (dysentery, malaria, and more). And the most prevalent non-communicable diseases among the over-fifties appear to be “sugar” and “pressure” (diabetes and high blood pressure), often going untreated for lack of finances. Poorer people with these conditions will likely become even more vulnerable.

And for all this Uganda has not lost its innate sense of humour: while Twitter can be a scary place these days, it can also be a source of fun and entertainment. Watch these lads having a bit of fun with their donated food.

There was a Brussels Airlines flight yesterday from Entebbe evacuating Germans and some Belgians who simply wanted to go home. For me and The Man, Uganda is home and we’ve nowhere else to go. So we’re here for the duration. What will be will be. I’m hoping for a good ending despite what I’ve said in this post.

Slán agus beannacht!  Stay home; stay safe; stay well.

 

Lizards, Toads, and Snakes

A few weeks before Christmas, just as we were packing for a quick vacation, a triad of reptilian – canine encounters had me almost cancelling the flights. First off, the young lady of the house “found” one of those beautiful fat blue lizards. Feisty wee things and fast on their feet when need be. Madam chased it but missed! Horray! But then the big White Shepherd thought he would demonstrate his machismo and pounded after it with a dangerous glint in his eye. Oh boy, didn’t he just catch it and was proudly showing off his still struggling prey when ordered to drop it. Being well enough trained, he did just that, with bright-red blood streaming out of his mouth. My piercing scream started the dog who froze; well, didn’t the wee thing take a running jump at him and bit him on the nose. Quite brave, I thought afterwards, but not at the time. At the time, my screams would have brought Lazarus back from the dead. They certainly roused The Man who, being of a rather sanguine nature, calmly found the creature, pushed a long stick towards it, and in no time at all had the thing grabbing onto the stick for all it was worth. Then it was over the garden fence with it. I’m sure it died rather quickly given the blood loss and the fright of ending up in a dog’s mouth.

blue-head-agama-lizard-stock-photography_csp2739850

Bloody nose cleaned up and antiseptic administered (didn’t like that one bit), Google was asked to provide answers to a few questions. “Can be toxic” was the overall consensus. But it was a small enough bite, and with the fur ball weighing in at around 50k, I thought it would take a bit of time for the poison, if any, to kick in. An anxious wait ensued. But it certainly wasn’t a calm wait. Less than thirty minutes later, barks and grunts had me streaking down the garden again to find the two young lads playing with what I think was a Bufo toad – these are poisonous to pets. Once again, “drop it” worked, and all were hustled inside to await any dramatic outcomes. Phew, I thought, that was quite a reptilian-filled hour.

400px-Bufo_Toad

After a longish while, all seemed calm, and none of the lads was showing any signs of poisoning. Time for a swim before heading to cooler climes announced The Man. While not really cold, the water was a bit wetter than usual due to all the rain, but the relaxation was curtailed when the old Madam sequestered on the back terrace, started up a queer sort of barking. I climbed out of the pool rather wearily, given that Madam is quite deaf and wont to bark like crazy for nothing. But investigate I always do. Not again! A long thin black snake was calmly coiled up by the back wall watching the old dog bark for all she was worth. The snake must have been deaf too: it didn’t budge – well not until I poked Madam who leapt into the air with fright. It budged then alright: it went into attack mode. Jeepers, what did I do to deserve this? The Man was summoned noisily, and padded up to us in flip flops with a wee towel around his waist – not really dressed for fighting snakes. “Quick, get a spade, get a spade!”. He did, but took a fair bit of time about it, all the while I’m holding onto the old doggo with fright. The snake was quite disturbed by now, and the first attempt to “get” it landed up around its middle. A very worried moment passed before The Man managed to pin it down just below the head. Thank all that’s good and holy that we watch progammes about that snake catcher in South Africa ’cause The Man got it right in the nick of time, just as the snake opened its mouth to display its black fangs. Another one bit the dust and was also dispatched over the fence. The bloody scene was cleaned up, and the old lady given heaps of doggie treats for being a good girl.

It was then that the hysteria got me: imagine dispensing with a possible black mamba in flip flops and a meagre waist towel. And then there was the lizard and the toad: a trio of poisonous creatures in one day? And here I was leaving my pooches in a reptile-infested compound while I went off to sip glühwein ’round a blazing fire. So I spent a good hour poking a long stick into all possible snake / toad / lizard hiding places so that they would be safe when I was away. A number of phone calls back to The Pearl assured me that all five were safe and reptile free while I was in Christmas tree mode. I am still fairly uneasy passing the snake spot, but I’m sure time will put that small fear to rest. All in all, I have to say that sometimes life here can be a tad more colourful than back in the old Sod!

When your fingertips are worn out

A few weeks back I went to renew my driving licence. What started off as a rather good day gradually degenerated into a blood pressure-raising fiasco. The Man kindly agreed to escort me ’cause it’s a fair bit away from home, and I was glad he did. I had made all the preparations and paid the fee in the bank – not any old bank mind you, a designated bank. Fair enough, that makes for better monitoring. Satisfied that I was ready, off we went. Security was a breeze and soon we found a good shady place to park; “but it won’t be for long”, I told The Man gaily, “they say you can have your licence within the hour”. Like heck, you can – well you can but you can’t. Let me explain.

First up, they wouldn’t let The Man come in with me: “applicants only”, they intoned on a regular basis. OK says he, I’ll just listen to the news in the meantime. Another security check later and I was in the bleak hanger-like building where the one-hour magic takes place. I always tend to look lost in these situations because generally I am. A very nice young woman noticed and took me to one side. She gave me a rickety seat to perch my derrière on and told me to wait a bit. She finished calling out a heap of names and then, instead of explaining the process,  led me to an empty seat near a service booth, ignoring the stares of all the  people in the queues or the people waiting to get into the queues. I was asked to wait a bit more. It was only then that I realised I had jumped the queue with my “I’m lost” face. If I had the sort of body that turned red, I would have been burning with embarrassment and shame. But it was a fait accompli and what could I do really? But don’t worry folks, my karmic pay back was just about to happen.

Once inside the booth I happily chatted with the computer person processing my papers and thought all was going swimmingly. But when it came to the fingerprint recognition bit, a slight frisson of anxiety began to worry a distant part of the hard drive. That frisson was justified: four fingers of the left hand “didn’t take” and I had to do it again – and a third time. Trying for the right hand fingers looked like a good strategy but nope, nothing doing all three times. The thumbs drew blanks as well. The computer logged her out after three tries, so she started again. Since I have had a few minor barneys with this sort of machine at Passport Controls in a number of East African countries, I thought second time around would be grand. Lady Karma had other ideas. The computer person did the triple tries again on the fingers – and the thumbs – before her machine got fed up. Time to call the supervisor. At this stage, I was getting a bit antsy. Said supervisor went through the same process, with me all the while asking who they thought my fingertips belonged to. No smiles! I was sombrely informed that my fingertip ridges had worn away and maybe I might not be who I claimed to be! Tingly moisture began forming behind my eyes!

And then it was time for the supervisor’s supervisor to come and sort things out. A new fingerprint machine thingy was brought and a new computer request for recognition was made. Nothing doing. In between wiping my fingers on swabs and using oodles of hand sanitizer while suppressing the urge to wail manically, furtive calls to The Man revealed he had listened to the news, cooled himself nicely with the AC, and killed the car battery in the process. Real tears began building up and my innards started giving me gyp. Finally, after six more tries, with an assistant holding my fingers down on the machine, the supervisor’s supervisor proclaimed himself satisfied with a 60% recognition factor. Who the heck owns the other 40% of my fingerprints? A very not Zen-like me was escorted to a counter in the bowels of the building where I joined another queue. My sweaty “bank” receipt was duly handed over, scrutinized, and then rejected. Turns out I hadn’t paid the fee for the licence at all. What had been extorted at the designated bank were simply Uganda Revenue Authority taxes. Wretches! And of course I didn’t have enough of the hefty fee to actually pay for the licence on the spot. The Man was summoned back from the garage and his wallet raided. We gathered just enough to make it. Another counter issued a receipt, and my shaky legs took me back to the lady who had rejected my papers some fifteen minutes earlier. “Look on the bright side” she said; “you’ll have your licence in under an hour”. I had already spent two hours trying to confirm that my fingers belonged to me. Jesus wept. And so did I.

Finally it was all over and my name flashed up on a state-of-the-art TV monitor. I am now legally licensed to drive for a further three years. I think that will be my driving career over: my fingertips won’t make it through another licensing process. But to cap it all: when driving through the gates I saw more than one young fella brandishing fist fulls of Uganda Driving Permits, furiously gesturing for us to stop and buy. Fast exchange, no fingerprints. What? And right beside the security guards on the gate! I could have saved myself a heap of existential anguish.

Oxford Geeks and Crafty Greeks

September 2019

Oxford Geeks
The Man and I had to go to Oxford a few weeks back and, naturally, we took a plane. It was a night flight via Addis Ababa and we were lucky enough to be seated in Comfort Class. At the very last minute, a harassed business-type person hurried up the aisle and found his seat just ahead of us. Well didn’t he then stand up and start removing his clothes! The sight nearly left my eyes. As it turns out, he was changing into his jammies (tasteful, black, suitable for an executive). After some skilful Houdini-type stuff, he handed his suit, shirt, and tie to the flight attendant, made his seat into a bed, pulled the blanket over his head, and was snoring in no time. He woke for breakfast, cleaned his teeth and whatever, then changed back into his suit to deplane, as they say, in Heathrow. Way to go, man – you could be an advert for the airline! That was the highlight of the flight.

One wet and misty bus trip later, we were in the Towery City itself. Being early on a Sunday, the streets were quiet while numerous bells told the intervals of the hour and called the faithful to prayer. After the lushness of the vegetation on the shores of Lake Victoria, so much stone looked, well, heavy, and rather dull to our eyes, but the history! And so we oohed and aahed at every corner, and peered into the quads of the colleges at the manicured lawns, trying to imagine them in times gone by. But since we hadn’t had the foresight to change into our jammies on the plane the tiredness got us after a while, and, rather sinfully, we slipped into The Randolf, and the wonderfully-named Morse Bar for a reviver.

During the week we caught up with friends, made new ones, attended some great presentations – my own was good (said The Man) – indulged in a little retail therapy, and drank a few GnTs. But one of the nicest things was having breakfast in the great hall of Christchurch every morning. Munching on toast and marmalade at the high table, surrounded by portraits of the great and good, the not-so-good and the apparently holy, transports you to another age and has you marvelling at the amount of learning that went on since the college was founded – a religious house has stood at the Christchurch site since the eighth century. But it also transports you to Hogwarts and you can pretend you are Professor Minerva McGonagall peering down at her favourite students of Gryffindor. This gives you the idea.

christchurch

And then, all too soon, it was time to go. But it was full of satisfaction that we made our weary way down St Aldate’s to catch the first bus to Heathrow. Still full of sleep and anxiously checking the time every few minutes, The Man asked if I had remembered to take the passports out of the room safe. Whoops, I thought he always did that. So there’s me sprinting up the hill to the porters’ lodge for a new room key, getting the passports, and shifting it all the way back down the hill again. Last time I moved that fast was with an angry German Shepherd behind me on a country road in France. Missed the first bus. But another one was soon on the way, and The Man had built in some wriggle room. He’s like that. Sometimes I laugh; this time I was grateful, if totally winded.

Crafty Greeks
And because we were in Europe, we decided to have a bit of a break on the island of Crete. Rather silly really, going almost halfway back towards Addis given that our return flight to Kampala was from Heathrow. But that being said, what an eye opener! For a start the weather was just like Uganda (a tad warmer at times, but lovey), the room overlooked the old Venetian harbour, and the food was just what the doctor ordered – if you like cheese, salads, olives, and stuffed vine leaves.

A brief wander through the streets saw the Harry Potter and London-themed tourist trinkets of Oxford’s High Street replaced by Athenian owls and pottery, mediterranean herbs, Cretan slippers, Turkish plates and bowls, and all sorts of colourful stuff. But apart from the atmosphere and the scenery, there were two things that made Crete memorable for me – old fogey that I am – the ancient archeological site of Knossos and the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology.

First Knossos. The earliest traceable signs of human settlement at Knossos appears to have been around 7.000 BC according to archeologists. Minoan civilization – so named after the mythical King Minos – was at its height during the second millennium BC, and Knossos was one of four of the great palace-cities of ancient Crete (the others being Mallia, Phaistos, and Zakros). But the palace was not simply the residence of the king: it stood at the centre of the administrative, economic, religious, and cultural activities of the people who may have numbered 100,000 in its heyday. The palace covers an area of 20,000 sq metres around which the city sprawled. The architects were a clever lot and built the palace into the hill with many parts being storied. They also constructed “light wells” to allow for air circulation and a sense of spaciousness.

stories

The rooms of the inner chambers were plastered and painted, and some are magnificent. One room depicts dolphins swimming amid smaller fish, while another (the Throne Room) shows the most wonderful griffins seated majestically amongst lilies.

dolphins

griffin

But can you believe that those Minoans, like the Ephesians, had rainwater drainage, clean water supply, sewerage, baths and indoor loos four thousand years ago? The rest of Europe was still having a yearly bath! One strange thing about the Minoans though: they had tiny waists, even the men. Look at the Priest-King.

king

But what struck me most was the size of the jars used for storage – they were huge, almost the height of me – and they were made with an eye for detail.

big pot

I loved it all, not only because Knossos was a wonderful example of human craft, but also because it evoked the old Greek myths. The daughter of King Minos was Ariadne (she of the Ariandne’s Thread method of solving puzzles) who gave her suitor a thread by which he could find his way out of the labyrinth of Daedalus having killed the Minotaur. They haven’t found a labyrinth there yet, as far as I know.

However striking the place may be (and it is a significant tourist attraction), it has been the focus of much scholarly and archeological debate. One school of thought has it that British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans (who started work there in 1900) reconstructed somewhat enthusiastically, extrapolating from the available evidence to create structures that bear scant resemblance to what they may have been: the making of ancient Crete in a sense! He gave the various parts of the site names based on supposed function: The Schoolroom, the Lapidary’s Workshop, the Royal Road, the Sanctuary Hall, the Corridor of the Draughtboard … and a lot of these places do need a fair degree of imagination to join the dots as it were. The famous “Ladies in Blue” fresco from the East Wing was, in reality, drawn by Swiss artist Émile Gilliéron (he had only a few fragments to go on), and my lovely dolphins (and the griffins) were the work of Dutch architect Piet de Jong! In the end, I suppose Evans and his artists were working “according to their own lights”, but it was rather a disappointment to find out that tiny waists and frolicking dolphins were probably a twentieth-century fiction. You can read more here.

But this great civilization and its palace-city disappeared, like Ephesus, Maya, and so many of the cities and civilizations of the ancient world. Sometime between 1,375 and 1,100 (perhaps due to the after effects of the Thera volcano) Knossos faded from history, leaving behind great piles of crumbling stones for later generations to walk through and make sense of.

And now the best of all: winner of the EU Museum of the Year Award 2019, the Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology. This unassuming-looking building on a side street knocked our socks off – The Man even went back for second helpings. The ancient Greeks were famous for a lot more than philosophers and one-armed statues: they were the poster boys for the cutting edge technology of their time. Housed in the Venetian Palazzo d’Ittar (built around 1500 AD), this small, hands-on exhibition has re-built and demonstrates internal screw cutters, pistons and cylinders, hydraulic valves, gears and sprockets, and much more. It all sounds a bit, well, technical, but the demonstration of these uses of steam, fire, water, and air are genius. Take the robot servant of Philon (third century BC). I won’t bore you with the technical details, but when Philon’s party guests wanted a refill, they simply pressed their glass to the robot’s decanter and, voila, the glass was full in no time. Here she is.

wine robot

Philon seems to have been a oenophile because lots of his inventions have to do with the stuff. He had a cup that allowed you to pour wine to a specific level. If you had a shaky hand or were just a bit too greedy, you lost the lot! Another very clever invention was his water/wine jug. Lots of stuff going on inside (basically tubes and air holes) meant you could pour your guest wine, watered wine, or simply water depending on how mean you were or how drunk you thought they were. Love this one!

Fire, the expansion of air, a closed container of water, some weights, and a syphon could create a miracle if you were Heron of Alexandria. Visitors to the temple who offered sacrifice to the gods could see the doors of the temple open automatically as if the gods were pleased with the offering. The Antikythera calculating mechanism was used to calculate very complex astronomical and calendar events via a series of gear wheels and graded circles. And did you know that the vaginal speculum was used in the fourth century BC or that Plato invented an alarm clock? Neither did I.

From automata and cryptography to musical instruments and useable domestic appliances, from gadgets and jet propulsion to cranes and pulleys, this museum richly deserves the 2019 EU Museum of the Year Award. If you can’t make it to Crete, do visit the website and prepare to use up your monthly data allowance. kotsanasmuseum

Snakes on The Line

Last night there was a medium-sized snake up the Palm Nut tree. The dogs went ballistic. The bird were in a frenzy. Quite so when a slithery thing is in the vicinity of your abode. I was simply curious, albeit with a mild frisson of anxiety when I though of the critter falling out of the palm onto a barking pooch. And it reminded me of the first time I met a snake as a young idealistic expat with no snake experience. The following incident happened in October 1993.

*****

About four weeks ago, just the day after I returned from a shopping trip to Ireland (which was lovely I must say), I met a snake for the very first time but was too stupid to make a big deal of it at the time. I have since learned that you treat snakes with a great deal of respect, and you certainly don’t do what I did. You do, in fact, make a very big deal out of it. In this corner of the world most people treat snakes according to the succinct Buddhist advice: “If you meet the Buddha kill him”. So if you happen to meet a snake on the Uganda Equator I have put together the following plan for immediate implementation.

1. Upon seeing this scary marvel of the wild back away – slowly or fast doesn’t matter but back away, even without reverse lights.
2. Open your mouth and yell loudly. This will ensure that people from both and near and far (after all everyone loves a break from work, especially if it involves an element of danger and fear – and perhaps machismo) will immediately run to your assistance.
3. Keep your eyes open and watch carefully while the brave men you have summoned examine the snake and then rush around madly to find sticks and stones.
4. Take the credit for finding the snake by telling everyone who has arrived to watch how scared you were when you first saw the unfortunate creature.
5. Close your eyes once more as the assembled men fling sticks and stones at the writhing creature making sure you are not targeted in the process.
6. Open your eyes when the victorious cry has gone up and press forward with the rest of the crowd to make sure the snake really is dead.
7. Hang around a bit longer recounting the story of the discovery and kill for all those arriving for the postmortem.
8 For the next few days tell everyone you meet how you made the grisly discovery, show them how big it was the way fishermen always do, and recount in embellished detail how it was killed.
This next point on The Plan is optional and only holds for really big snakes:
9. Organise mini guided tours to the spot where the snake was found and killed while recounting the story again to anyone willing to listen.

This is a good plan – not good for the snake, of course, and it will not be recommended by any wildlife organization – but it is a good plan. I did not do any of the above. What I did was stupid – I did get a lot of conversational mileage out of it since, but it was still stupid. This is how it went.

On a certain Tuesday I went home to make myself a light lunch and was humming happily as I thought of the wonderful lectures I would be able to write with the newly-acquired books (Philosophy 101 was on course after all despite the container heist when all my books were looted in Kenya), periodically relived various moments of the retail therapy, and wondered when I would use the smoked salmon sitting proudly on a prominent shelf in the fridge. The frothy eggs sizzled as they hit the oil in the first stage of being transformed into a tasty omelette, and they continued sizzling long past the stage when said sizzling should have fizzled out. The happy humming stopped while I wondered what kind of marvellous Ugandan eggs made so much noise.

As I looked under the table holding the small two-ring gas cooker looking for the source of a possible gas leak, I came face-to-fang with a huge (not fisherman huge but really huge) brown snake angrily hissing at me for daring to disturb its cool peaceful sleep with egg noises and humming. I calmly turned off the gas and crouched down to get a closer look at it. There it was, coiled in the corner: a quite beautiful snake but it was one annoyed snake and was letting me know it.

“What to do? Yes, of course Dee, dance for it. For what, the snake? Yeah, why not?” Why not indeed? Ten years earlier while walking in a forest in Southern Germany a friend had told me that snakes don’t like noise, or rather don’t like vibrations, and will slither away if they don’t like the approaching ambience. So there was nothing for it but to prance around the kitchen making incredibly loud stomping noises with my feet.
This manoeuvre is not in The Plan for the simple reason that it doesn’t work. What it does is make the snake even more angry and frightened, so frightened that it will start attack proceedings. For a snake this entails aggressive head raising and even louder sizzling while advancing slowly and menacingly towards the dancer. At this point I realised that danger was approaching and made a hastily ungracious escape from the kitchen. When the snake had finally stopped sizzling I crept back into the kitchen just in time to see my new acquaintance slither calmly through a frighteningly large gap, previously unnoticed, between the bottom of the back door and the floor, and into the safety of the jungle of my exotic back garden. I later revised this opinion of tropical landscaping and had the grass cutters in so that similar sizzlers couldn’t find cool refuge so close to my cooking table. I also rolled up some newspapers and taped them to the bottom of the door in case my friend wanted another performance of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Then I ate my lunch with even more appetite because of the unexpected exercise.

As I said, I didn’t know then what I know now, and a week later during a lull in a conversation I mentioned my pre-lunch dance routine to some colleagues. The following conversation should be read aloud quickly and with raised decibels.
“You did what?”
“What size was it?”
“What colour was it?”
“Did it have a flat head?”
“What were its markings like?”
“You really did that? God!”
“You’re mad! You danced at a Puff Adder! Dee, that thing is really dangerous. It could have bitten you because you cornered it.”
“But St Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland,” I protested.
“He what? Who?”
“St Patrick. He drove them all away so we Irish people have no training in snake-related behaviour.”
That excuse just didn’t justify my actions. They all looked at me with strange expressions: this mzungu (white person) is nuts their faces said. She is stupid their raised eyebrows said. But she may well be just a little bit brave their wide eyes said, because we would have followed The Plan.

In the time since then I have surprisingly made the acquaintance of a few more snakes, and while I haven’t quite followed The Plan, I haven’t done any ballet for them either. I now have a few theories about snakes.

1. You only see them if you want to see them. Some colleagues who have been in Africa for a lot longer have seen fewer snakes than I have.
2. Someone up there is making sure that the snake-deprived Irish abroad complete their educational experiences by allowing them to encounter more than their fair share of Eden’s bad guys.
3. Snakes only appear to those who believe in them — this theory works much in the same way as Douglas Adams’s theory about extra-terrestrials in strange flying crafts manifesting themselves to the gullible.

I am, however, quite proud of my actions on that long-ago Tuesday because the snake didn’t die. “I saved a snake life”, I often think to myself smugly. It didn’t get its head bashed in and die in agony all because of some wise advice given freely while stomping through the knee-deep leaves of a damp Bavarian forest floor.

On Living in a Bone House

Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Jesuit Gerald Manley Hopkins. I have always had a great love for his poetry, so much that the paperback I owned (and often loaned) fell apart. But Lady Luck was smiling on me, and I found an early edition hardback in a second-hand bookshop in Namibia last year — one footnote actually replicates his signature from letters to Robert Bridges!). For those interested in his correspondence, four new letters were discovered in 1993 (https://www.gerardmanleyhopkins.org/studies/letters.html), one of which gives a very human account of his vow ceremony, while another is to Cardinal Newman lamenting the state of University College Dublin.

The following was first posted in 2013.

GMH

Yesterday evening I re-read a poem I last glanced at the night before ‘A’ level English Lit many moons ago; the poem was ‘The Caged Skylark’ by Gerald Manley Hopkins. Wowee! What a powerful piece of writing, powerful, but seriously depressing and gloomy at the same time. I myself have been trying to follow all the latest advice to be at peace with my body, to live in the now, not to be worried, to be good and to be kind. And here’s himself, that unhappy Victorian Jesuit describing our bodies as dull cages” as a “bone house” in which we are “day-labouring out life’s age”. I do realise that many, many people of the time did, in fact, struggle simply to get through each day of hard work with the hope of heavenly reward at the end of it all — much in the same way that way too many people in Uganda still do today.

But despite our being in prison, GMH admits that both the wild skylark and ourselves (the caged ones) can sometimes sing the sweetest songs, although we can still be overcome with rage and fear. Our embodiment, our flesh-bound existence is an endurance for all us mortals. But, says GMH (with a fair bit of restraint), we will not be at all distressed with, at the end of it all, our “bones risen”. I should think not.

This is the poem (accessed at http://www.bartleby.com/122/15.html).

AS a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage
Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells—
That bird beyond the remembering his free fells;
This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.

Though aloft on turf or perch or poor low stage,
Both sing sometímes the sweetest, sweetest spells,
Yet both droop deadly sómetimes in their cells
Or wring their barriers in bursts of fear or rage.

Not that the sweet-fowl, song-fowl, needs no rest—
Why, hear him, hear him babble and drop down to his nest,
But his own nest, wild nest, no prison.

Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound when found at best,
But uncumbered: meadow-down is not distressed
For a rainbow footing it nor he for his bónes rísen.

While Platonic dualism is very much a part of Hopkins’s worldview, he was also a bit of an oddity himself in terms of the things of the body. He tried some pretty weird ascetic stuff as a kid at school — like not drinking anything for a week! Later, at Oxford, he gradually became more reclusive; and it is generally thought that rather than confront his homoerotic tendencies, he chose to reign them in by becoming not only a catholic, not only a priest, but a Jesuit also (ordained in 1877)!

The last years of his life teaching classics at University College Dublin were apparently a terrible burden on the poor man. Many of his gloom and doom sonnets come from this time and they make for harrowing reading. Probably today he would be diagnosed as seriously depressive and given a few happy pills to keep him going. But can you imagine the reception given to this poetic Englishman trying to teach Latin and Greek to some of the lads from Dublin or beyont? The poor man must have suffered in class. He also suffered with his bowels, and finally they got the better of him. He died with typhoid fever in 1889, and his hard-worked bones lie in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin awaiting to be “bones risen”. At a dinner I once attended at Newman House in the late 80s, and feeling the urge to empty my bladder to make room for more of the great wine served there, I was directed to a washroom for ladies on the ground floor. When remarking on the lovely coving on the ceiling, someone later told me they had been the rooms of our very own GMH when he had lived in Dublin. I still don’t know what to make of that.

But for all his eccentricities, oddness, strange ideas, and out-dated theology, I love the work of this Victorian Jesuit who did not like Ireland or the Irish; sadly, he became physically sick amongst us. And yet, his way with words is simply breathtaking. Read these few lines from ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’:

AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name …

And this from Duns Scotus’ Oxford:

TOWERY city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped and poisèd powers …

And what I love most about Hopkins is his ability to describe nature. While he doesn’t hold out a lot of hope for humans, nature remains fresh, deep, mysterious, and enriching as these lines from ‘Spring’ tell us:

NOTHING is so beautiful as spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

And despite the heavy footprint we humans leave on the earth: it will remain fresh.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. (‘God’s Grandeur’)

Sweet, sweet words so well put together!

I could continue, but I’ll stop it there. Go over to the Bartleby site and have a read for yourself.

Caprines on the Equator

I have been pondering a hefty question recently: why do you not see dead goats on Kampala roads? You do see plenty of dead dogs, a few dead cats, and some other less-identifiable animals, but not the goats – and parts of the city could be called Goatstown, so plentiful are the creatures. Does this mean that goats have more road sense than dogs, or what? The Man answered this question rather neatly when he observed that most people don’t eat dogs – which I took to mean that any goat without the sense to cross when the road is clear is quickly scooped up and taken home for the pot. I myself don’t eat goat (very strong meat if the truth be told, and anyway I think goats are lovely, quirky animals), but it is a delicacy for many locals, and goat-on-a-stick is a feature of many BBQs.

At one stage when we lived on the Equator I had a small herd of goats – well, three to be exact. It started off by accident because I wasn’t really into animal husbandry. We were invited to a party but when we got to the venue the main course was still tethered to a tree and hadn’t been killed yet! It was a rather handsome goat, but when I had a closer look, I was sure it was pregnant. I just couldn’t let it be cut up and put on sticks. So off I go into the bush around the Equator, up and down mud roads, until I see a herd of goats grazing by the side of a small hut. A fair amount of bargaining went on until we reached an agreeable price, and the old man tied the young buck’s legs and hefted it into the boot for the drive back to the party. Young male goat was duly handed over to the chefs without too much remorse, and pregnant lady was led down to my place and tied to a tree out of the way of the pooches. I called her Lucky because I reckoned she was. And so Lucky would be taken out to pasture each day by the garden guy, while a trainee builder was commissioned to put up a small fence around the dog house. I waited in vain for goatlets but none came. It appears that when goats have eaten a lot their bellies swell so much that they all look pregnant, even the boy goats. No-one told me. I felt very Jacana-like at that moment of realization.

A few months passed and bedad didn’t I get a goat for a present! To this day I don’t know why the giver chose a goat instead of a book or a scarf or something, but there you have it. And so Hope joined the family. Lucky and Hope: had a nice ring to it, I thought. The difference between having one goat and two boils down to the noise levels of an early morning while the ladies headbutted each other and tried to escape their dog house to get to the grazing sites. By that time I had gained the reputation of being a goat lover, soon-to-be goat breeder, people said knowingly. And then … yep, I was gifted another goat! This time I got a boy – all the better to impregnate the girls – a mix between a local goat and an exotic breed, a very handsome (and expensive) boy who quickly became the boss of the dog house. I called him The Boy because he was. And so it was now Lucky, Hope, and The Boy. The plaintive maaaas got louder and the headbutting more serious, the poop increased as The Boy grew, and the pungent whiff of goat pee began to waft up to my bedroom.

And then an edict was passed by the powers that be: all animals, except dogs and cats, must be removed from campus. And so it was with quite a bit of relief that I had my herd moved to the university farm down the road. They were tethered there for one night, one measly night! The next morning I got the news that my trio had been attacked by a leopard in the darkness and then dutifully buried by the local farm workers at dawn. WHAT? There were no leopards in our neck of the woods, and you simply do not bury a goat: you cut it up and roast it, irrespective of the manner of death, that’s what you do! The long and the short of it was that bad people stole my goats. I was more upset with the lies than with the loss of the goats. And when I rushed to tell The Man what had happened, he said: “well, Lucky wasn’t lucky; there was no hope for Hope, and as for The Boy? …”. I could have strangled him. On hearing the news in the afternoon another colleague made exactly the same comment. I gave him the chilliest look I could muster, turned on my heel, and walked away. He still doesn’t know why. Throughout the day, people stopped by my office to commiserate on the fate of the goats, even though ALL of them knew it was well nigh impossible for the creatures to have been eaten by a leopard and then buried by kind villagers in unmarked graves. But they kept straight faces nonetheless, and I accepted their condolences with similar visage. I have to tell you I wished many bad things on those goat thieves, things I hope did not actually happen to them.

But that was not the end of my caprine adventures. When we moved to the Big Smoke, I got a goat as a going-away present. I had gone off goats at that stage and snuck away from the party without it, thinking I was saved from another period of goat ownership. But jeepers, the very next day I was sitting outside having a quiet read when I heard a plaintive maaaaa, maaaaa, maaaaa, MAAAAA getting louder and louder. Didn’t they go and put the goat on the back of a pick up and driven it 84 kilometres to Kampala. Whaaaa! What’s a girl to do with a live goat, two non-goat-loving canines, and a back garden full of cheeky monkeys? To cut a long story short, the goat went to market like the little piggies. Except that I had to get a letter of authority from the Local Council guy to put the goat on a string and walk it to the market. That goat sold for the equivalent of $15. I kept the cash. I figured my goat ownership days had entitled me to it. But I do have to tell you that if someone gave me a goat now, I would be ever so grateful. I would make it an enclosure (far away from my bedroom window), take it out for grazing every day, and milk it (read: get it milked) every evening to make yummy cheese with.