Author Archives: Deirdre Carabine

About Deirdre Carabine

Expat Irish academic living and working in Uganda for the past thirty years, at first right on the Equator, and then in the capital city Kampala. Recently retired and now an independent researcher on medieval philosophy/theology.

Banished Children of Eve: Body of God

Stray thoughts on a recent tweet and COP 26

The other day I came upon a Tweet from a guy in Ireland asking what DeValera’s Ireland meant for people today. It got me (and a lot of others) thinking. And in the light of the current Glasgow events I began to wonder more about an ecological theology and cosmic justice.

Banished child of Eve
I grew up a poor banished child of Eve. The church of my formative years was an insular church harking back to nineteenth-century Ireland, a church ruled by the God who took no prisoners and warders who seldom showed much humanity. It was a mighty institution built on centuries of hard-held beliefs. It was male; its females incidental. While woman births us male church re-births us since we were born defective, so to speak, save the Virgin Mother. The child who died before re-birthing did not receive a heavenly reward, remaining forever in limbo on unconsecrated ground. The woman who bore us was ‘churched’ (cleansing ritual after childbirth) before re-entry to its sacred portals. Those poor banished children of Eve who were beguiled by lustful young lads and became with child were doomed. No fallen girl’s father should have to live with the disgrace of a bastard child, so the nuns took us in to hide his shame. That story has become the shame of the church. The lads got 10 Hail Marys.

Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears

The exile of the banished to this earth, brought on by the woman who plucked forbidden fruit was but a preparation for the next life. Keep the rules, be good, receive your heavenly reward. Aspirations were always to get the better of, and subdue, physical bodies with their feared yet beckoning pleasures. Like the African slaves of the ‘new world’, the Irish child of Eve, sold by her father for a cow, maybe more, hunkered down, bit through it, and hoped for a better life in eternity, happy to be shriven in the final hours. Cowed by a clergy that lived apart in isolation, the people of God, cap in hand, were governed by fear of hell’s damnation – Joyce’s sermon on hell in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is terrifying. The Ireland of Eamon DeValera and John Charles McQuaid (President and Archbishop), an island of cassocks and comely colleens in dancing mode, was simultaneously harsh and idealistic. Now? Now the good china days are dead and gone, in the grave with the laundries and guilt-ridden sexuality, and the shepherds have lost a fair degree of loyalty and standing.

The body of God

‘I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay until sundown, for going out,
I discovered, was actually going in’ (John Muir)

For those who have not thrown in the towel, the pulse of spiritual matters today is different. The Church of Eamon and John Charles has moved on. Society has moved on. People have moved on. You are no longer a poor banished child of Eve – you are a child of God, beloved, called by name, chosen. Your task is not to subdue the body but to look into its depths and uncover God within. Your body is not evil and sinful but God’s dwelling place – not a new idea: one that goes back to the early centuries of the Church but occluded through much dogmatism and ritual. The Fathers of the Church believed that God became embodied, incarnate, so that human could become God. It doesn’t stop there: the human is already god-become: I am what God is since God was what I am, immortal diamond (adapting the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins). The deification of humanity is not singular: all things are spiritual matter as scientist Teilhard de Chardin (another turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Jesuit) knew. A theology of guilt and salvation through sacrifice is not attractive today; a spirituality that knows all creation as holy, not only human creation, is. Creation is part of us and we are part of creation. The mango tree, the cauliflower, the rat, the honey bee and I have a common source, a common ancestor. God-becoming (deogenesis) is for all that is, not just humanity. Everything moves inexorably towards its end, which is its beginning: God. This labour is to become the omega, the ‘when God shall be all in all’. This is the zeitgeist, the flowering of a new understanding, an understanding of our world and our God.

Bones broken
And the point of all this? The point is that our perspective is changing. We are putting on new spectacles. God is not remote. God is not confined to heaven. God is not confined to Church or a church. God simply is. This world is Blessed. Holy. Wonderful. Diverse. Magnificent. Manifestation of God. Ah, but even so, Gaia (Mother Earth / Goddess), the body of God-becoming, weeps, weeps in pain for her looming death, a body of bones broken. We do not weep with her. We have no tears for a planet – we have other worlds to explore, to visit, to plunder. As Greta says: our words, our promises are empty. But then why should we worry about the planet when peoples are oppressed, hungry, at war, kidnapped, traded and enslaved, trafficked, poor, homeless, tortured … ? Human concerns must surely come before planetary concerns! Surely they must! But our financially-driven duplicitous thinking has deluded us; we do not consider planetary concerns to be human concerns. Gaia has been regulating our earth for millennia but can no longer fix herself. It is too late for natural homeostasis to be sustained. The truth is that the state of our world is indeed inconvenient. It seems humanity cannot be nudged from its position centre stage even though human being is the only entity on earth that cannot live without other animals and plants. They can easily live without us – in fact, many would be better of.

Ecological justice could be moved forward at Glasgow. Sir David’s words were compelling. The Pontiff’s words were compelling. The words of Prince Charles (finally ‘mainstream’?) and the President of Barbados were compelling. But in our local Churches most pastors are more concerned with the state of our soul than with the state of our everyday reality or our cosmic home. The shepherds who propose a cosmic agenda are few and far between. Local pastors mostly keep sacramentality in church under lock and key. Cosmic sacramentality? Could rock the boat. Does the boat stand in need of a good rocking? Yes, I believe it does. Pastors have two items to add to the Sunday sermon (while still focussing on social justice): finding God in the sacrament of the body incarnate and promoting cosmic justice and egalitarianism for a better future.

Blessing the body
(found at Richard Rhor’s Centre for Action and Contemplation) by Jan Richardson, a writer, poet, artist, and ordained minister in the United Methodist Church.

This blessing takes
one look at you
and all it can say is

Holy hands.
Holy face.
Holy feet.
Holy everything
in between.

Holy even in pain.
Holy even when weary.
In brokenness, holy.
In shame, holy still.

Holy in delight.
Holy in distress.
Holy when being born.
Holy when we lay it down
at the hour of our death.

So, friend,
open your eyes
(holy eyes).
For one moment
see what this blessing sees,
this blessing that knows
how you have been formed
and knit together
in wonder and
in love.

Welcome this blessing
that folds its hands
in prayer
when it meets you;
receive this blessing
that wants to kneel
in reverence
before you—
you who are
home for God
in this world.

Slan agus beannacht duibh!

The dreadful state of our world: what on earth could be next?

If you need to be cheered up, please don’t read this. During the last week I have been keeping tabs on the awfulness reported daily. I had found myself becoming numb, but then I began to think: this is really happening ‘out there’ while I am safe in my bubble. Here’s the list of the world’s woes (not comprehensive) as reported during the past week.

Covid has affected more people than the infected and those who have died, while physical and mental health worldwide is worsening with lockdowns and restrictions
There are conspiracy theories about almost everything
In South Africa, riots and looting in KwaZulu Natal mean livelihoods have been lost and people further demoralised; many are dead
There are protests in France as Macron insists on new Covid rules
Brexit reverberations, sausage wars, and a border down the Irish Sea fuel NI political tensions
Afghan forces versus theTaliban: border closed between Afghanistan and Pakistan as the Taliban takes the upper hand (thanks chiefly to the US)
The Aussie-China ‘wine war’ wreaks parts of Australia’s wine industry
The Dutch crime reporter de Vries has died from his injuries after the shooting last week
Madagascar and Syria are in ruins
A Kenyan conservationist is killed by unknown assailants
Refugees and displaced people are increasing daily
In Northern Ireland, blanket immunity is now on the books for all political murderers prior to 1998 (English troops, IRA, and UVF – amongst others)
Tanzania hasn’t started vaccinations yet and has released no Covid stats to date
Peeps worldwide refuse to wear masks because this is all a big conspiracy – others are afraid to leave their homes even for medical treatment
Myanmar and the Uighurs … hard to take in!
Amazon UK won’t deliver to Northern Ireland
Ethiopia is in disaster mode in the Tigray region
UK cutting foreign aid means millions will miss out on aid relief
Children all over the world missed ordinary childhood vaccines because of Covid
Millions of people in developing countries have been plunged into poverty; women in Kampala selling tomatoes and onions on the street to feed their kids are terrorised by cops
Italians are targeted physically and online in England after their Euro2020 win
Covid Cash in Uganda is seriously abused and the corrupt are having a field day; no-one can speak out
US temperatures rise and the life of many eco-systems is being destroyed (shellfish cook alive and are washed up on shores)
The Haiti president has been assassinated
Chinese bitcom miners pack up and go home
China-US relations continue to shatter
Buildings collapse in the US, India, China and elsewhere
Hospital fires in Bangladesh, Iraq, and elsewhere destroy Covid wards
Environmental degradation continues unabated everywhere because of profit and greed
Global wealth: 8 richest men on the planet own half the world’s income
Turkey migrants to the Greek islands are forcefully returned to the open sea; those who ‘make it’ are put into squalid camps
Canada finds the unmarked graves of far too many indigenous children buried near Church-run boarding schools
Global political corruption continues to fuel the rising gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’
Rightwing politics globally is infringing many basic hard-won human rights
190 children in Kenya are missing; abduction and killing crime ring is suspected
The world economy is in absolute tatters
Israel still annexing Palestinian land
Homes in Ireland (Donegal and Mayo chiefly) affected by Mica are slowly crumbling away as people struggle to pay off mortgages
Mozambique is in crisis
Kids in Nigeria are being abducted at a shocking rate
The ghost Olympic Games are held in Japan amidst the worsening Covid crisis when the population is largely not vaccinated and, therefore, not ready to receive visitors
There is serious flooding in Europe (Belgium, Germany, and The Netherlands) as rivers burst their banks after days of sustained rainfall; nearly100 people dead and many more missing. Climate change blamed
Some Amazon forest areas are now emitting more Co2 than they soak up
A woman in Uganda sold her baby to witchdoctors for 10,000 shillings (less than 2 GBP); they killed the 9-month old as part of a ritual sacrifice; she was arrested
North Korea is in dire straights with no vaccines to treat Covid
All over the world oxygen and vaccines are in short supply
The UK plans to hike taxes on sugar and salt while the income divide widens
The Irish Government (and it’s not the only one) has its head so far up its a**e it cannot provide proper leadership

And now for something completely different:
Virgin boss plays with his latest toy and tours space while Amazon boss is planning his own trip soon, and Elon Musk is also in on the act!

We sure do live in interesting times! We weep for what has become of us and our world.

Remembering Beginnings Part II

The Man has been beavering away on a last blogpost about the university on The Equator.He was telling you about all the good things. I was remembering the rather nasty and unexpected start which went as follows.

August 1993 Rain Dance and Murphy’s Law
Good news! They say that the containers with all our stuff in them will arrive next week. I was beginning to panic because all my books and lecture notes are packed in wine boxes in those containers and I don’t think I could face Philosophy 101 in a strange land without my notes. Have been in Kampala three times recently trying to get the Freight Company to tell us when they will deliver the goodies.
Nonchalant Official: “We have lost track of the containers, Sir, we are trying to locate their whereabouts”. The Man: “Lost track of them? Ssebo (Sir), I need to know now where my goods are. I have expensive equipment in those containers and I need information. Call Mombassa and find out what has happened to them”.
Less NO: “Sir, we have already done that. It seems the containers are lost somewhere between Nairobi and Kampala”.
Lost? I thought, lost? How can two huge containers get lost? It’s not like they are titchy or anything, there’s a car in one of them for God’s sake. I needed a cigarette but I had stopped so I had to take deep breaths until I calmed down.
Today, NO was nonchalant no more and was, in fact, quite perky when he delivered the news about the containers being ‘found’. So was I. The Man wasn’t ecstatic about it but he had calmed down a bit. I was excited. I was missing my CDs and my computer and my books and my guitar and my clothes, all my stuff really. I wasn’t necessarily missing my lecture notes but I would feel a lot more comfortable once I had them in my possession again.
Back at The Equator I was just happily settling down in the shade to do a bit of reading for one of my courses when a bit of a warm wind came up. I relished the experience since my skin hadn’t been caressed by any class of wind since I had left the shores of North Donegal where they are generally of the fresh variety. And it continued to come up until it was almost a storm force gale. The sky in the north east was turning darker and darker and this darkness ate up more and more of the sky until it had blotted out the sun. Rain, I thought. I hadn’t seen a bit of rain since I had arrived in June and our water tanks were almost dry. Great!
Then it began. Tropical rain is not like your ordinary common or garden variety of Irish rain. You can see it coming – you can actually smell it coming. You can hear it coming. The pitter pattering on the roofs and on the banana leaves gets louder and louder as it comes closer until it is finally upon you. When it rains in Africa huge droplets of water the size of golf balls splat heavily and rather lazily on the ground, slowly at first and then faster and faster until all the golf balls have been joined up and eventually become satellite dish-sized puddles and then minor rivers. It was loud, it was dramatic, and it was wonderful. So wonderful that I took off all my clothes, grabbed a bar of soap, and dashed out into the back garden for a shower au natur. I felt like a child again and enjoyed my first real shower in two months. If I’d had the foresight to hang my clothes on the line, the force of the rain would have cleaned them just as well as any washing machine and I could have saved myself some tiring foot stomping in the bath of a Saturday morning.
And so to the news: the containers arrived on Tuesday and I had been so excited: my stuff! I was remembering last March when I cunningly concealed bottles of Irish whiskey and other intoxicating beverages in boxes marked BOOKS! FRAGILE! I haven’t had a Bush since June. Neither have I had a Guinness and I was remembering the six Draft Guinness tins tucked into a box marked SHOES! FRAGILE! They would go straight into the recently borrowed fridge for consumption later that night. Only they weren’t consumed because bloody Murphy had to go and spoil it all. When we opened the seals there was a large hole in one container that shouldn’t have been there. They had been so well packed in Antwerp that you couldn’t have squeezed a match box into either of them. Now someone had left a great big hole in one of them.
I sat down on the veranda and waited as the containers were unloaded, watching carefully and hoping that my five large green suitcases would soon emerge from their dusty depths, when I suddenly realised that Murphy’s Law was about to happen and I started to cry. One of the guys helping out with the offloading fished a cigarette out of his pocket and suddenly I needed one myself even though I had stopped. He graciously poked about for another one and I lit up with the relish of the addict that I am. I knew I shouldn’t have and I knew that “just the one” could easily turn into “well just another one”, but the impending disaster was altogether too much for me to cope with.
It transpired that when the containers were “lost” in Kenya, they were actually being looted by bad men whom I have spent the last few days thinking up horrible names for. Six of us had all our worldly possessions in those containers and those greedy bandits just helped themselves. CID in Kenya has since refused to co- operate in the investigation and that means they probably know who did it. The thieves were after the university computers and probably couldn’t believe their luck when they found all our stuff in there as well. I still find my BP rising when I think of some thief’s wife wearing my new summer frocks!
In the past few days I have calmed down a bit about the loss of my fridge and freezer, my new electronic water filter, my bed linen and crockery, my television and video, and my guitar and other stuff like that because the insurance will replace them, but I can’t calm down about the loss of a good number of boxes of books and my precious lecture notes that the insurance company has refused to compensate. What about Philosophy 101? Not only can I not calm down, I get positively angry when I think about the five large suitcases of clothes (65 kilos worth) lovingly chosen and packed for a new life on a sunny continent. My dairies (please God, let the thieves be illiterate!), my new Marks and Spencer knickers (white cotton), the ruler I have had since Form 1, photographs of my family and friends, the watercolour of Glendalough the brother painted for my birthday last year, none of these will be covered by the insurance. What price can you put on a family photo? How do you calculate the cost of one battered, standard issue, wooden school ruler?
All the art books I have collected over the years in the sales, my poetry collection (mostly second-hand but invaluable to me), the only copies of my MA and PhD theses (not that I ever want to read them again but it would have be nice to have had them) … all these have been taken away from me.
Some small bit of good news. Yesterday The Man and I went to poke around in the garage where the remaining boxes are stored and, lo and behold, I found my computer! I was so happy, I cried, you know how it is. I have now worked out that the thieves probably didn’t know that a box labelled MACINTOSH! FRAGILE! was likely to be a computer. They also weren’t able to know that a box labelled SHOES! FRAGILE! didn’t only contain foot ware but also some of the Black Stuff. And I was so pleased that they were fooled by the boxes labelled BOOKS! FRAGILE! that actually contained Bushmills and other similar kinds of beverages. I was like a kid but only for a while because kids aren’t allowed to drink that kind of stuff, so I sobered up and later got down to the serious business of sampling the contents of the bottle with a black and orange label. It was delicious but it unleashed my anger again, and then it made me homesick, so I had to screw the cap back on and save some for another, happier day.
I have decided to go back to Ireland next week and buy enough books so that I can prepare my lectures and enough clothes so the I look decent when giving them. I am already looking forward to some retail therapy and hoping for an Indian summer in Donegal.

October 1993 The Students Arrive
They were supposed to start the academic year in the first week of October but that was impossible because of logistical problems such as the lack of water and electricity. When we had more or less sorted out a basic (if intermittent) supply of both, we sent out the call that we were as ready as we were going to be. Eighty-four of them came on the 18th full of smiles and expectancy. For the whole day, boda boda (bicycles for hire) with one or more students on the back and piled high with bags and boxes came up the hill to the gate and deposited their cargo in exchange for a really-small-when-converted-into-Irish-Punts sum of money. All ten of us staff hung around all day introducing ourselves, saying “Good afternoon. Welcome to Nkozi! How are you?” eighty-four times each. That’s one of the really nice things about Uganda (well maybe not in Kampala streets): just like in Donegal, you greet everyone you meet. Now I’m not talking a quick “hiya” or “howaya” while still on the hoof. Generally, you stop, or at the very least put yourself into first gear:
“Good morning. How are you?”
“I’m fine, thank you, how are you?”
“Fine, thank you. Mmmmmm.”
The Man tells me that Mmmmmm means yes or ok. It makes a wonderful conversation filler and I now find myself doing it like a natural, although when I can do it in Luganda, it’ll sound even better. I’ve bought myself a primary-school level English-Luganda translator and I’m making some, if slow, progress. Back to the students.
Since we had spent the whole of last month preparing two halls of residence so that they would be in a basic state of habitation, we were feeling pretty good about the set up. The toilets were working and smelled heavenly (well, like a pine forest really). The kitchen gleamed and its former residents were nowhere to be seen. We had also cleared most of the bush around the living, eating, and studying areas so that mosquitos would have fewer breeding places. We were proud of our work but we still had a very, very long way to go before we would feel comfortable in the place. The students were happy though and for a good number, the results of our efforts were a million times better than anything they had experienced in boarding school. They too were in heaven of a sort.
But I have to tell you that the first week of teaching was a nightmare. The German-built lectures halls have a rotten acoustic and that, coupled with the fact that my usually fast ear was finding it difficult to adjust to Ugandan English, made it hard for me to understand all that the students were saying. Of course, they also had to adjust their own ears to the mixed Irish accent that I have developed over the years, so we all had an interesting time saying “excuse me”, “could you repeat that please?”, or “pardon?” We didn’t say “what” because that word has been banned from my classroom. Why? I hear you say. What’s wrong with what? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with what. Many people have picked up what I assume was originally a teaching ploy and constantly pepper their conversation with phrases like: “thewhat? [pause] the dining hall” or “awhat? [pause] a vehicle”. I can imagine a teacher in a primary-school class:
“Now, children, we are going to learn about numbers. Repeat after me: one, two, three. Again: one, what? … what? …”.
“Excellent”, teacher says as the class fills in the appropriate answer after each ‘what?’
So now my students are doing the same. Last week one student informed me: “Aristotle was awhat? [pause] a realist, but he was also awhat? [pause] a sexist”. I couldn’t take it anymore, so all non-legitimate “whats” are now forbidden.

My own Northern vowels have now been sent to elocution lessons after I spent a good minute in class last week trying to explain “earth”.
“You know, earth.”
“Could you repeat that?”
Yes, earth!”
“Oh God! You know, the stuff you plant vegetables in?”
“Oh, earth. Yes.”
“That’s what I said.”
Except it wasn’t. I said something like errth. I have been practising speaking posh ever since. I don’t feel such a wally now but childhood memories of us kids in the street making fun of people who said things like: “we have our tea at sex”, haunt me every time I open my mouth.

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.

Corona Virus Chronicles from Kampala Part III

Since I last wrote, Standard Operating Procedures appear to be less and less enforced in Uganda. After mask wearing became mandatory, the cops were vigilant about stopping people, even vehicles with one maskless driver. I don’t know if fines were enforced though. At the beginning of the pandemic, President Museveni was leading the country fighting the enemy virus and gave us many presidential addresses educating people and explaining his tactics. Land, lake, and air routes into the country were closed and troops enforced the country’s isolation during a three-month lockdown. Nightly curfew was enforced (and still is), and driving in cars, busses, and taxis was forbidden. The only loophole was that truckers, who were tested at the border, were allowed to continue their journeys whilst awaiting their results. That’s how this sneaky virus entered Uganda, that and some unscrupulous people escaping enforced quarantine. However, Uganda’s Covid-19 infections and deaths are still relatively low.

Source: Ministry of Health, Uganda

The breakdown of the new cases: 31 contacts and alerts: Kampala (12) Arua (3), Amuru (3), Bukwo (2), Lira (2), Mbale (1), Wakiso (1), Kalaki (1) Nakapiripirit (1), Butaleja (1), Masaka (1), Mayuge (1), Mbarara (1) and Jinja (1). It must be said though that 850 thousand tests is a relatively small sample given the size of the population. One thing surprises me; look at the infection numbers, then look at the recoveries and death rates. They do not tally. But this is not at all surprising since reporting is not always accurate. Many people who get better simply walk out of a hospital or clinic and staff forget to register the recovery.

But still, the low numbers intrigued me and I asked my trusty friend Google to help investigate Uganda’s infection and death rates; the average age of the 46.68 million population is 16.7 years; most people live outside; windows in offices are mostly open (AC is not much available outside Kampala); the majority of the population is rural; people in Uganda have lived with many Covids over the years and may have developed some immunity; few people can afford foreign (or indeed domestic) travel. And yet I am still surprised at the results given the fact that social distancing is not practised and mask wearing is negligible (even when worn they are mostly used as chin decorations). Credit must be given however, because most people do the hand-washing bit!

But after almost a year of hearing Covid-related news we appear to have grown weary of it: hasn’t happened to anyone I know so it won’t happen to me. And so life in Uganda continues more or less as normal. I haven’t heard any news or timetables of vaccination plans (although some have been ordered). Traffic is as hectic as ever, air pollution remains three times the WHO cut-off level, and downtown Kampala is still a nightmare of crowded streets and malls. It scares me at the best of times; now I wouldn’t venture there for love nor money! When we do go out to shop once a week, I double mask (the top one an N95 with breathing valve), put the visor and gloves on before going into shops (gloves changes, of course, for each shop), sanitise if I have to touch anything ungloved, and generally come home stressed before cleaning everything in a Milton solution.

And while we are lucky to be living near the lake with mostly lazy warm breezes, some time back I noticed the dogs (who give us much comfort and love) begin to go ballistic when anyone came through the gate – not many have and that’s why they get so excited. A lot of re-training has since been done on re-socialization and noises, and copious of treats have been dispensed as rewards for good behaviour. They have become a lot calmer, but appear to be more needy. Our monastic lifestyle which we do like doesn’t appear to suit them. Recently I bought them a big strong football and that keeps them seriously entertained and exercised when I am too tired to play fetch. Noseball is hugely funny to watch and beats Netflix hands down.

If I am honest, a glass of wine or a GnT has almost become a must at the end of the day, a reward if you like, for having gotten through another one! Now and again I am a bit pessimistic with regard to the future, and at times need something to help me sleep, but mostly I am happy the way we are. Living with Covid-19 in the Internet Age has its benefits: Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp (sorry now it’s Signal) and so on, have become more important than ever in times of no travel, no touch, no hugs, no handshakes, and no vaccines for the foreseeable future. The climate helps, of course, so we do not also suffer from SAD. But while living “in the now” (living “without a why”) with no thought for what the future might hold is a liberation of sorts, it is a bit like walking a highwire; balance is everything!

Slán agus beannacht!

Covid-19 Take 2

On March 22 at noon all Uganda’s borders were closed, including Entebbe International Airport.
Prior to 31 March, many public places and shops had instigated sanitation practices for customers, while many people were voluntarily staying at home.
On 31 March Lockdown and Curfew became obligatory.
All public transport was banned fully.
Private vehicles were prohibited, and security services check all routes constantly.
Cargo and emergency services, including key workers, are allowed to travel with a special permit.
All non-food stores, bars, nightclubs, and other shops are closed; supermarkets and pharmacies remain open, as do hospitals and smaller clinics.
People can still walk (or take a bicycle) to local shops and food markets. All shops and markets sanitise customers prior to entry.

As of yesterday, 19 April 2020:
“Today 1,126 samples tested NEGATIVE For COVID-19
837 samples were from truck drivers at border points
289 samples were from individuals under institutional quarantine and contacts to confirmed cases
Confirmed Cases of COVID-19 stand at 55 in Uganda
Total COVID-19 recoveries: 22
Deaths: none.”
Source Ministry of Health

I have read some reports, generally from outside Uganda, that these figures must be fake. The overall take on Uganda’s status seems to be: how is this possible in such an under-developed country when the “developed” world is seeing thousands of cases and deaths each day? While I remain cautiously optimistic in terms of Uganda’s prognosis, there could be a number of reasons why Uganda’s figures are low. As a land-locked, generally rural-based country, travel is an expense many can ill afford. I don’t know the stats, but the numbers of Ugandans who have travelled abroad is low. While some countries are still allowing flights into their airports, our President closed Entebbe on 22 March, almost one month ago. Everyone who travelled into the country between 7 – 22 March is being traced and tested; many have already been quarantined and subsequently released if negative for the virus. This is our third week on lockdown and nightly curfew, with more than two weeks remaining. All this constitutes much faster action than in the US or UK (flights still operating in both countries to date). And we should not forget that Uganda has a good track record with disease control.

However, I am not an idiot. All governments and politicians lie to their people – everywhere. This thing could still turn sour and become a massive tragedy. Physical distancing and social isolation are well nigh impossible in many of our communities, especially in the slums of Kampala. If it does, there will be many thousands of deaths. But a further worrying issue is that the lockdown has made many hand-to-mouth workers redundant. Government food distribution is already subject to corrupt practices, and when people are hungry, disease seizes the opportunity to strike. Malaria cases will likely rise (it is the rainy season with higher than usual rainfall in many places); and people living near swamps and wetlands will certainly see more cases of dysentery and childhood diarrhoeal deaths. Money for simple medical treatment, scarce at the best of times, has dried up. In countries where people can easily get their five-a-day, many, many Ugandans will sleep hungry having had (if lucky) a simple meal of beans and maize flour during the day – enough to keep the stomach from rumbling too loudly, but hardly sufficient to maintain good health.

And so, whatever happens, our people will suffer, perhaps more from financial poverty and economic hardship than Covid-19. Only time will tell. I for one am praying for a positive outcome. Join me if you are the praying type.

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

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 has now become staying alive in frightening circumstances.

Yesterday I was thinking about the words people I hear on the wireless use 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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