Category Archives: Early Days

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.

Goodbye Lady

February 2002

Last Wednesday evening I took the pooch for the usual evening walk and this time she was really slow on her feet. She hasn’t been well for a few months and the vet told me to feed her well and keep an eye on her. Even though she enjoyed the amble up the hill and managed a few quite satisfying barks at any birdies that dared to land in our vicinity, when we came home, she just sort of slumped in the corner with an absolutely fatigued air. I took a few photos with the new digital camera and when I uploaded the pics to the computer, I got a huge shock: Lady was, quite literally, on her last legs. Her face was gaunt and terribly grey and all the bones in her body were showing. As I sat gazing on these horrifying images of my wonderful canine companion, I realised that I had to do something. A call to the vet on Friday afternoon established that he would be in the Animal Clinic on Saturday morning and so in a very small voice, I booked an appointment.

Pete and Albert, her friends and lookers-after, firmly told me that they were coming with me and The Man assured me that he would be waiting when we came back, no matter what the outcome. But as soon as I opened the back of the car, Madam hopped in like a teenager and settled herself face towards the middle of the road to frighten away any stray cars that might be passing on the other side of the road which she did to my great satisfaction. She really enjoyed the journey and half way there I told Albert that we should go home because the dog was fine.
“But look! She’s enjoying herself. She can’t be that sick”.
“No, Dee. We’re going. She is sick. We have to see what the vet says”.
“Ok, ok. But I think we should go back home. She’s fine now”.
“No, she’s not. She’s sick and we are going to Kampala to see the vet”.
Well, the vet took one look at the dog and shook his head.
“Do you want me to put her to sleep?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. Maybe. Can I think about it? Do you think she might get better?”
No response from the veterinarian.
“It might be for the best, Dee”, said Pete in a quiet voice.
“No, but she’s fine. Look how she was when we got out of the car. She sniffed everywhere and did a pee and barked and everything and really enjoyed herself.”
“But Dee …”

I have to say that tears streamed down my face while the vet prepared his stuff. I asked him to give her a small sedative in preparation and, as usual, it made her sick. She couldn’t wait to get back to the car and we lifted her in, all with tears in our eyes. I had asked the vet to give us five minutes but it seemed like only seconds when he and his assistant arrived at the car with the needle already prepared. When he finally found a vein and started giving the injection, my phone rang. The Man asked if it was all over and as I told him that it was still going on, it was suddenly all over and I had missed it.

Needless to say, the journey back home was an awful one and I don’t think I spoke a single word for the whole, dreadfully-long eighty-four kilometres. Back at the ranch, The Man had arranged a grave under the vine (her favourite place for chasing the birds away from the grapes) and it was with a very heavy heart that we carried our pooch to her final resting place. It was an overcast morning and it seemed to me that there was a real chill in the air, but there probably wasn’t. I felt that I should say something, but I didn’t know what to say. I was afraid to sound stupid in front of Pete and Albert, but I was so choked up that I probably couldn’t have said anything anyway.

With the hole finally covered, everyone went their own way, and I too went my own way and tried to swallow some lunch. But that evening when darkness had descended and no-one could see us, The Man and I went to say goodbye and goodnight to our friend. I said a small prayer and told my beloved pooch to sleep well forever. I thanked her for all the wonderful years of companionship and for all the joy she had brought us, for being there with a big, sloppy, wet tongue when our feet needed massage, and for woofing madly with joy when the gate opened at the end of the working day, for being brave when confronted with a herd of cows even though she was phobic about them, for barking like a mad thing to tell us that a small black snake was hiding behind the living room flower pot, for … for … for just everything, but most of all for having been our friend. She lived a good life and was really cosseted towards the end, and I hope that she enjoyed being with us as much as we enjoyed being with her. As The Man said, if she comes back in another life, let’s hope she comes back belonging to someone as nice as me!

The one piece of good news here is that we have ordered a pup from her daughter Missy in Kampala. The little one arrives next week.

Thunder and Lightening

September 1995

Haven’t I been telling you that the dog was strange? I have recently discovered that she is absolutely scarred shitless of thunder and lightening. Because I’ve never noticed before, I suspect that it’s a fairly recently-developed phobia – number four for those who are counting. Now thunder and lightening in Ireland can infrequently be frightening enough, but thunder in the Tropics can be really bone-shakingly scary. In Uganda’s rainy seasons, it generally starts to rain around the same time every day, and at the height of the season, it seems to rain steadily at night. And unfortunately, the rain often comes with thunder and lightening attached. Many times it’s far enough away so that you only hear a distant rumble, but quite frequently (too frequently for my liking) it happens in your own neighbourhood and it’s then that I crawl deeper under the sheets counting “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand … ” to find out how close it is.

The first time I heard a serious thunder crack in the middle of the night, I actually clawed my way under the bed with the fright because I thought it was an earthquake. In fact, the earthquake that happened a few weeks later simply rattled the cups and saucers in the kitchen cupboards. Thunder during the day never seems as bad as thunder during the night — I think it’s that 4 am bleak time that makes it seem worse. Anyhow, the long and the short of it is that we get these fierce storms at night and although I’m becoming more used to them, I still don’t like them.

But last week, we had a serious storm during the middle of the morning and it has caused us a serious setback with regard to our new telephone system. We were so excited at the thought of being able to make a call from home instead of having to drive eighty-four kilometres to make it, and now we are almost back to square one. The national provider had said that we are too far from the main road (is three and a half kilometres really too far?) and refused to get us connected. So The Man asked around in Belgium (naturally enough) and, lo and behold, a small telecom company was willing to come and connect us to the outside world. I won’t tell you the number of Uganda Shillings involved because it really is too vulgar. Anyhow, they came about ten days ago and have done all the usual things associated with telephone connection like digging up large areas of campus, erecting a gimormous telephone tower (which apparently will microwave (stet) our calls to Masaka and then put them onto the national provider’s lines), and hacking great big holes in walls and stuff like that.

On the last day, the boss was making a final check of all the wall sockets and had just finished sticking a screwdriver into one of them in the study at home, when a God-awful crack shook the very foundations of the house. I was at the computer typing up repeat exam questions when a big spark seemed to jump up from the socket and over the printer and was gone like greased lightening, which it was. Ian rushed back into the study white-faced and asked what had happened.

“Lightening”, I explained with the nonchalant air of one who has become accustomed to such terror.
“Wow! That was something”, he exhaled gratefully.
“Wasn’t it just? But a big spark has just jumped over my computer and disappeared”.
“Oh God, no”, he sighed, “that doesn’t sound too good”.
“Just as well you hadn’t still got your screwdriver stuck in that hole otherwise you might be fried by now”, I joked.
But it wasn’t a joke: it turned out to be the reality of a very close call. A nearby transformer had been hit by the lightening which it sought the quickest route to earth – that just happened to be through our newly-laid phone lines. Apparently, it travelled up to the The Man’s office, jumped over his printer too, took itself off to the newly-built telephone room, did a fair bit of damage in its brief passing, and then scooted out to the end of the line where it promptly found a big tree and fried that in its dying throes.

That’s why we are back to square one, although the good news is that The Man had everything insured. I didn’t know insurance companies dealt with acts of the gods, but apparently they do, and they have since paid up so new equipment is flying in next week. But in all the mayhem of the moment, I had forgotten about the dog: it turns out that she had been locked in the utility room (by mistake) and was fairly upset when she was eventually found.

They say that dogs are more sensitive than humans about things like earthquakes; maybe the same goes for electricity. Anyway, she was so afraid that she had to get some extra doggie treats in the middle of the day. I am tempted to suspect that the fear Flossie exhibits when it thunders might well be an attempt to get more pigs ears, although I am prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.

Kampala … in more “interesting times”

February 1995

It all began around the time when Mr Stanley (of “Dr Livingstone, I presume” fame) appealed for missionaries to Uganda in 1875. Many took up his call and the first missionaries of the Church Missionary Society arrived a short two years later in 1877. For the Catholics, reaching Lake Victoria near Entebbe in 1879 entailed a rather tortuous journey: they travelled from Marseilles to the Spice Island of Zanzibar and then simply walked the rest of the way, hacking their way through eight-hundred miles of fever-infested bush as they moved slowly into the interior of East Africa – bringing their own brands of bodily ailments with them. When two of them (Father Lourdel and Brother Amans) reached Uganda, their first task was to seek audience with King Mutesa (the Kabaka) at Mengo, the capital of Buganda. Presents were given and, in return, the Kabaka gave permission for a small group to set up shop evangelizing the locals their way.

However, a strange twist in this story concerns the fact that Alexander Mackay of the Church Missionary Society had reached the Kabaka before them – he too had trekked from Zanzibar through the unaccommodating bush to reach the breathtakingly beautiful shores of Lake Victoria to bring the Good News to its inhabitants. The story goes that Mackay was asked to be the spokesman for the newly-arrived Catholic priests and apparently told the king more than he was asked to. Since the CMS had already been in Uganda for two years, they thought the newcomers were intruding on their turf and were more than miffed – after all, the new lot had the rest of Africa to set up shop in:” Why here? Mackay, although part of the Anglican mission, was a member of The Free Church of Scotland – you can imagine his reaction to the papists!

Histories tell all sorts of interesting stories about this rivalry, but from the Kabaka’s point of view, it was even more complicated than the old rivalries between Teagues and Prods. He was worried about the designs of Egypt on his northern borders and so his dallying with the English Protestants and the French Catholics had political overtones in terms of countering the Arab influence from the north. And the Kabaka was also worried that the Bazungu wanted to take over his kingdom. Happily for him, he passed away in 1884 before any damage was done. His son, the young Mwanga, took the throne of Buganda but he inherited all his father’s fears and more. In 1885, this volatile young man grew even more worried when news reached him that the Germans had threatened Zanzibar and were working their way through current day Tanzania. Scary news indeed for a young king perched on a perilous throne! Mwanga, although a newcomer to royal politics was very much part of the various intrigues going on at his own court which included Arab (slave) traders who were anxious about their own lucrative businesses in the clove gardens of Zanzibar, a trade built on the labour of stolen human beings.

When things hotted up in 1885, news of a visit by CMS Bishop Hannington and his caravan through neighbouring territory frightened the Kabaka so much that he (under the influence of the Arab traders) had the group captured, imprisoned, and then brutally murdered. He was afraid that the Bishop was opening the path to other Bazungu who would depose him and seize his lands. After Hannington’s murder, the local clergy of both persuasions grew increasingly worried about their own safety and, of course, tried to win the favour of the Kabaka. According to accounts of the day, Mwanga blew hot and cold in turns with the English and the French – effectively keeping them all on their toes. Not a bad tactic for a newcomer in politics!

In May 1886, with the Brits and King Leopold mounting missions to save their lads in Buganda, Mwanga grew increasingly angry with the young newly-converted Christians at his court. It is said that they began to refuse to indulge in acts of “unmentionable abomination”, and this began a bloody slaughter of the innocents. The culmination of this brutal spree of maiming, castration, and killing culminated on 3rd June when a group of twenty-four young Christians were burned to death at Namugongo – currently site of the shrine to these Uganda martyrs who died for their newly-found faith. Thus it was that Uganda’s earliest Christians quickly became martyrs, just as in the early days of Christianity itself. This persecution of the Christians certainly could be described as living in ‘interesting times’, and thereafter Kabaka Mwanga became increasingly embroiled in battles with all religious parties: Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims. Not an enviable position.

After his deposition, though strange and twisting plots of the Arab traders at court, Kabaka Mwanga appealed to the Imperial British East Africa Company in 1889 for help in getting his throne back. The Brits were apparently non committal but did agree that the Kabaka be placed under the Company’s Protection – protection that never materialized because he got his throne back without them.

But things went from bad to worse, and when a certain Captain Lugard of the said Imperial British Company (who, not surprisingly, believed that imperialism was the answer to the slave trade) arrived at Mengo in 1890 to secure the Kabaka’s agreement to placing his kingdom under a British Protectorate, a series of small sparks eventually ignited. When Lugard succeeded in getting the great Kabaka to sign away his land, his revenues, and his armies, Mwanga eventually turned to the French White Fathers for support against a common enemy. Eventually, with a bad-hearted Irish arms dealer thrown into the mix, the question of who actually started the war isn’t really important, but one did start, and a bloody one at that.

Lugard issued weapons to the English who are said to have opened fire on the French who could be described as baiting them across the hill at Rubaga in January 1892. Three months of civil war ensued. The English emerged victorious with Mwanga and the French forced to turn tail and flee Mengo, leaving the Brits to start implementing unspeakably harsh tax systems and subduing the natives in their usual clod-footed fashion. Apparently Winston Churchill (he of “the pearl” one-liner) saw through to the core of the problem: the age old rivalry between the French and the British had taken on religious undertones – a bit like other “Troubles” in more recent times. But the European scramble for the goodies of Africa was the real heart of the problem, not religion or national allegiances. And while things eventually sorted themselves out in a way, and relative peace was restored to all the waring factions, even today, you can feel the lingering ghosts of Lugard, Lourdel, Mackay and the CMS, and the rest of the Catholic White Fathers when you take a walk up to their erstwhile strongholds on the hills of present-day Kampala.

Back to the cathedrals. The Roman Catholic one was consecrated in 1925 and is said to be built on the former royal enclosure of King Mutesa. An interesting turn of events that. The Protestant Cathedral was built at Namirembe hill. The original grass-thatched church on the hilltop was consecrated in 1892 but was blown down in a storm in 1901. A replacement was eaten by white ants and pulled down in 1904. A third cathedral was struck by lightening after only eight years in existence. Fourth time lucky? Yes, the current church was consecrated in 1919 and still stands today. Both cathedrals are wonderful examples of early colonial architecture and both are loved by the people who worship there. Manys a quiet afternoon can be spent wandering around their insides and indeed their outsides where they afford the most enticing views over this city of expanding hills. But spare a thought for the bicycles: getting to Church of a Sunday morning for those without motorized vehicles can be a serious expenditure of effort. The cool relief on the inside is a fitting reward for those who sweat their way up the hill to thank God for more peaceful, less interesting times.

Kampala on a Sunny Afternoon ….

August 1995

Last Thursday I found myself in Kampala with a bit of time for a walkabout after fighting with immigration to get my temporary pass commuted to a work permit. I eventually did get it, but trying to deal with officialdom is a bit like knitting with one needle: it’s very frustrating. Now I’m not normally the type of lady who lunches, but being in Kampala around one-o-c1ock or so is exciting because some of the hotels have the most amazing buffets with the most unusual side shows.

Generally, the show at one particular hotel consists of the most ugly creatures on the planet: Marabou Storks. These most horrid of birds have the most awful manners: they actually pee on their legs to keep themselves cool. Now many an ornithologist might think that was pretty cool but it’s a habit that I hope humans don’t catch on to. These massive birds (kaloli in Luganda) are scavengers, they’re ugly (in fact, they’re so ugly you’d wonder how their own mothers could love them), and they’re said to be mean. If one of those monsters landed on your doorstep with a baby snugly nestled in a pouch dangling from its beak, you’d send the kid back. But anyway, despite their ugliness, they’re fascinating and many of them stalk regally around the hotel grounds as if they own the place – in fact, they probably did in the not-so-far-distant past. Every tree in sight has been earmarked as a nesting place and anxious mammys and daddies take turns to ensure than their offspring make it safely beyond the shell stage of existence. Actually, even though these birds have a bad PR, they make excellent garbage collectors, a job that Kampala City Council doesn’t take at all seriously. There are skips littered all over the city with their contents overflowing. And if the Council forgets to replace a skip in the usual location, people continue to dump the garbage anyway. It’s what keeps these baby carriers alive.

But while I was contemplating one of nature’s oddest looking beasties, the most interesting thing happened. I was sitting on the hotel terrace having a delicious cup of coffee, when a bit of a stir near the entrance caught my attention. I turned around to see lots of men in dark suits and walkie talkies walking swiftly down the entrance ramp. Strange, I thought, what’s going down? Then unexpectedly, three African presidents calmly followed and into their waiting limos. Wow! Coffee and another show! I was beside myself with excitement since I have never in my life seen a person who has been on the telly, that is if you discount Sean Rafferty in Boots one wet Saturday yonks ago.

Thereafter with a few hours to spare, I decided to visit the cathedrals of Rubaga and Namirembe. Both bastions of Christianity sit atop magnificent hills overlooking the city and both are wonderful historical and architectural monuments. The Namlrembe Cathedral still calls worshipers to prayer with drums and that is a sound for sore ears in a traffic-noisy city like Kampala. Talking about calling people to worship: one of the things most exotic in my first year in Uganda was the call of the muezzin punctuating the mundane working day with reminders of the sacred. I still like being within earshot of prayer, whether the drum, the bell, or the vocal variety. But these two magnificent cathedrals stand on the sites of awful massacres and battles of the early years of Christianity in the country, and they hold the secrets of much bloody shenanigans of the past. More anon.

Making Ends Meet

May 1995

In Uganda, most people have to struggle to make a living. Primary-school teachers can come home with less than $30 a month if they are lucky, while I put away the grand sum of $150. It takes me to save almost five months salary to book a flight to the Emerald Isle and back to The Pearl. Just putting food on the table, treating malaria and other diseases, and sending the kids to school can tax even the most inventive of entrepreneurs.

The bicycle vendors, for example, fix a large frame on the back of their push bikes and pile up all sorts of goodies like long-handled brooms, Christmas decorations, key rings, video tapes, kid’s clothing, mosquito nets and the like, and then peddle all over the place, sometimes as far as 50 kilometres away trying to sell to anyone who gives them a second glance. Recently, I saw an enterprising lad with loads of brightly-coloured second-hand bras arranged quite pleasingly on the back of his bike. Then there are the youngsters who peddle their wares at traffic lights, usually cassette tapes, “tennis rackets” that kill mossies when you swipe them through the air, and other smaller items. I now give these lads no time of day at all since one since one of them sold me two blank tapes that were supposed to have been reggae.

Others have simply given up and beg on the streets around the banks where their punters are likely to be flush. Many of these street beggars are disabled in some way, some horrifically so. Some men without legs use their arms to propel themselves like greased lightening to any stopped car and have such wheedling ways that you generally give in. Then you have the young girls with babies who hang around the traffic lights, shopping places, and markets with constantly open hands and sad faces. There too, you can’t not give something (“for the baby, Mlssus”). Then there are the shop scouts. These are energetic lads who roam the streets looking for people wanting to buy particular items. Once you’ve told them what you need, they take you on a sometimes lengthy walk through the back streets until you reach a shop that stocks the item you are looking for. They get a small commission, of course, but you have to be prepared for some heavy bargaining if you don’t want to pay mzungu price and cover their commission twice over. But I have to say that I’ve bought some really needful things this way.

Then there are the cases of those who sell sex in order to make ends meet. In Kampala, the going rate can be just five thousand shillings for a quickie ($2.50). From time to time, the cops cop on, as it were, and round up all the luscious ladies of the night and take them to Central Police Station for a chastening night in the cells. But they get out the next day and go straight back to their turf to get their lunch money. The hookers who sell sex in more comfortable surroundings can take up to thirty thousand shillings from each punter. In Kampala hotels and night clubs, these hookers are easy to spot because, well, they look just exactly like hookers should look. There is a part of town called Half London and if you want a bit of human comfort, that’s the place to hang out.

But the saddest cases of all are the young girls in the villages who sell sex for as little as 500 shillings, that’s a bit less than 50 cents in US currency. One of the towns near us, which is situated on the great African highway that stretches between the costal town of Mombasa and Kigali is now a ghost town. It used to be a thriving place that catered for passing trade, especially long distance lorry drivers who used to park there for a night’s rest. The spread of HIV/AIDS quickly killed a whole generation, and many grandmothers now have families of up to twenty orphans to look after, feed, and send to school. As a result, many youngsters don’t ever see the inside of a classroom and are destined to find their own ways of making a living. Girls as young as twelve are in the sex game because older men think they will be HIV negative. Often they are not because they have no bargaining power in terms of condom use even if they could afford to buy them. Like most men the world over, Ugandan men have a problem with wearing a johnny, and I’ve heard that some of those in the villages who do, often wash them after use and then hang them out to dry for the next time. And so HIV/AIDS continues taking lives that should not be taken, and leaving kids as young as ten or eleven looking after their younger siblings if granny has passed away. In these kinds of situations, it is little wonder that people try to make ends meet as best they can.

But not all the cases are sad: the oddest I encountered was so hilarious that it deserves a mention here. Just before we moved into the new house last year, I was minding my own business stomping on the weekly wash of a Saturday morning when the puppy yip-yip (that is fast growing into a big snake-frightening bark) went into overdrive. An anxious me jumped out of the bath, put my nice clean crinkly feet into my flip flops, and went outside to investigate with images of little banana belly disappearing into the empty belly of a python filling the hard drive. Outside, I found an old man and a young boy dancing around to avoid the nips of an exuberant Lady greeting the unusual visitors. Old Man had a wildly bulging sack clutched in his weather-beaten hand and Young Boy (curiously, because his legs were fine) had a rather large walking stick. This incident is best recounted in Norn Iron, the language that is spoken in many places north of the border with the Republic of Ireland, and it goes as follows. Original translation from Luganda to English by Stick Boy.

Me: “Hiya. Doin’ well?”
Old Man: “Can’t complain, missus, can’t complain. Yerself?”
Me: “Och, gettin’ by. Can I do ya anythin’ fur ya?”
OM: “Nat really. I was just wonnerin’ like, if ya wanna buy a wee bird”.
Mystified Me: “A bird? What kinna bird?”
OM: “A white one, missus”.
MM: “A white one? What wud I want wi a white bird?”
OM: “Well, like, ya cud keep it as a pet, missus”.
Very MM: “I don’t think so, but giv’us a luk anyway”.
OM: “That cud be tricky, missus”.
Slightly Irritated Me: “Mister, if I’m gonna buy sumpin’, I wanna luk first”.
Getting Exasperated OM: “I tol’ ya, missus, ya can’t have a luk”.
Exasperated Me: “Ok. Ok! What kinna bird is it? A chicken? What? Giv’us a feel”.
OM: “Naw, missus, it’s not a chicken [thank God for small mercies], it’s one of them there wee white birds that lives on cows and ates their ticks”.
Incredulous Me: “WHAT? What wud I do wi a bird like that? Ya cuddin keep that sorta bird as a pet. The dog’id ate it for breakfast”.
Seriously Curious OM: “Do ya not feed your dog, missus?”
More IM: “Of course I bloody feed the dog! It’s a turn of phrase”.
OM: “A turna what, missus?”
MIM: “Och, forget it. What were ya luking for it anyway?”
Slightly Happier OM: “Five thousan’ shillin’s, missus.
Getting Tired Me: “And I can’t take a luk?”
Slightly Despondent OM: “Na Missus, if y’open that bag, the bloody bird’ll fly away”.

Can I leave it there? The conversation continued along the same sort of lines for another five minutes or so until I finally said NO, and asked OM with Bulging Bag and Stick Boy translator politely, but firmly, to leave. Pea Brain barked them all the way to the gate and after they had gone, I almost made myself sick laughing. I still chuckle when I think about the serious offer the Old Man had made me and how on earth he thought I was going to fall for it. I may be a bit like a Jacana, I may be a bit naieve, and I may be a mzungu, but I certainly didn’t come up the Lagan in a bubble! Had he asked me outright for a few bob, I would have given it to him and he could have sold his bird to another more gullible mzungu.

Power to the People (pretty please!)

February 1995

The power has been off for three and a half days now and I am at the end of my tether. I thought I’d become more patient, but obviously I haven’t! I’m thinking of packing up and returning to the Emerald Isle if this continues much longer. The Uganda Electricity Board (UEB to the initiated) lost a whole line of poles to our place on a back road somewhere down in the valley due to lack of maintenance over the past twenty years. The Man has, quite conveniently, been off somewhere exotic for the past two weeks and has missed this unkind episode. So every evening I haul out the small two-ring gas cooker and try to cook up something tasty from a freezer that is now just about functioning as a fridge. Yesterday, I decided to annoy the UEB people until they gave me an answer about our re-connection date, and in the end they did. Tomorrow before lunch, they said, so I went down to have a look at the state of the ongoing works. Let me tell you what I saw. There were about thirty or so men all hard at work and rest because they all have different jobs. You know the old joke about the number of Irishmen it takes to change a light bulb? Well, it’s not a joke when applied to men and tropical electricity poles. Some men are responsible for chopping down the old rotting pole before others dig it out of the ground. Then there is a group who mix and pour the concrete to house the new pole. Another lot is in charge of “planting” the new pole, while the last crew gets to climb up and connect the electricity wires.

In fact that’s exactly the same thing that happens in government offices in Kampala if you want an official document. A reception person generally greets you and sends you to the correct office (nine times out of ten it’s not the correct office, but there you are). Another person then takes your completed form for whatever and promptly sends you to an official sitting at a window down the room. This person first determines your reason for being there and then tells you where to go to pay. Another windowed person quickly takes your cash and then directs you to the place where you get your receipt. Finally, you get to go to yet another window where your receipt is checked and your form duly stamped. The last window person generally tells you to come back next week to collect the item you want and the whole thing more or less starts all over again!

But back to electricity poles and the lack of power. This morning, having witnessed the rather fast defrosting of a pretty full freezer, I decided that since many things were still cold, I would cook and then re-freeze all the stuff so that I didn’t have to throw away too much food. That’s what I spent the morning doing before phoning the UEB to check that the re-connection was still on schedule. Waah! Some of the new poles fell out of their holes and they’ll maybe be able to get us back on power in two days time. “Sorry, Madam, thank you for calling, madam”. But what about my ready cooked meals? What about them: they’re now distributed all over campus to various takers, leaving me without any back up grub in the freezer. Later, I went back to have another look at the pole planting exercise and was totally dismayed. They needed new poles from Masaka, and since their lorry had no fuel, would we be kind enough to provide the fuel so that they could go and bring back our new poles. Of course; we would, I assured them (at that stage I would have sold a kidney just to get back onto the national grid because dark evenings playing solitaire by candlelight are beginning to get right up my nose).

Having shelled out a goodly number of Shillings for UEB fuel, I am now waiting for the call that will send my heart soaring and lift my fallen spirits. When The Man comes back I am going to whisper into his shell-like that a generator might be a bloody good idea. Imagine not being able to switch on your computer for a full working week! It might sound ok for a bit, but enforced idleness is wearing on the nerves when you’re used to the benefits of modern technology. Not only that, but the phones aren’t working either because the batteries that provide emergency power to the system have long ago lost any juice they had managed to build up.

This kind of situation makes you think: whatever did our grandparents do without power. How did they keep the butter and meat fresh enough to eat a couple of days after purchase? How on earth did they fill their shadowy evenings lit by paraffin lamps? I suppose that’s why demographers were busier in first part of this century. In South Africa Nelson Mandela was wise enough to realize that connecting houses in shanty towns to the national grid would lower the birth rate. So he planted some poles and connected some wires and found that he was right. God, I hope power outages are on the decrease otherwise the population will be set for a massive increase.

Time and Rain

December 1994

During the middle of this month I have to go to the UK to do some academic work. And of course because Oxford is quite close to Donegal (just next door really, if you think in terms of continental Africa), I’ll pop over there to celebrate Christmas once again in the land of welcoming publicans and twinkly lights. What I find most exciting about going back to the land of my birth (I can’t say “home” because home is where I go back to at the end of each working day) is that things run a bit more smoothly than in Uganda. Now when I say smoothly, I’m thinking time wise. Even though Donegal time bears some remarkably similar features to African time, still it runs marginally faster – note the subtle qualification!

You know how in Spain they say that things can wait until mañana, in Uganda we go a step further: this is the place where there really is “nothing as urgent as mañana”! African time stands in a league of its own even though it is a distant relative of Donegal time. If your friend tells you she will visit you “tomorrow”, she will probably arrive full of smiles at 7pm while you have waited anxiously since 9am (a bit like the time keeping of an emergency plumber). This laid back atmosphere means you have to cultivate lots of patience to deal with the time “problem” and the overwhelming bureaucracy that is an unfortunate colonial legacy. A fellow Northerner here in Kampala has written a book, The Man with the Key has Gone – that is a common answer to questions about why something isn’t happening NOW. His point is that if you are to keep your blood pressure within acceptable healthy limits, you have to be patient and wait until whatever you are waiting for happens. Once you have learned the trick of waiting patiently and not worrying about things you can’t change anyway, you will be an infinitely happier person.

African time is an amazing thing and seems to stretch – and stretch and stretch. The Germans and the Swiss (the best watch makers, after all) would tear their hair out and start to write nasty letters to the authorities if a train dared to be more than two or three minutes late – here, people simply have the time to wait even if the train will be ten hours late. That reminds me of the old joke about the two Irish farmers who travelled to the nearest town to transact a bit of bank business. When told that the bank would be open in two hours, one lad sagely remarked to the other: “Sure, it won’t take us long waitin’ two hours”.

That describes the attitude to time in Uganda. So, if time is a mental attitude, that means that humans can do what they want with it: it doesn’t mean that time controls humans. In a land where many people know the time of day by looking up at the sky, when people know when it is time to eat by checking on their digestive workings, and when the time to sleep is dictated by the setting of the sun, a watch makes little sense. In fact, when I come home from work I take mine off so that I can be free of its constriction (but also, if the truth be told, because I don’t want a white band on my wrist where the sun doesn’t shine). The Man gets rightly ticked off when I keep asking “what time is it now?” But what I still have to come to terms with is the fact that a university timetable necessitates fairly strict timekeeping. This appears to cause quite some havoc in the minds of the students – and rightly so given the fact that they are not Swiss or German!

Things tend to go from bad to worse when it rains and I think I’ve worked out why. Now in Donegal rain is par for the course – in fact, even a summer’s day wouldn’t be the same without a light drizzle or a soft class of a rain anyhow. Here in Africa, soft rains don’t exist: here the rain is hard, really, really hard as I’ve previously explained. Irish rain, on the other hand, is a bit like snow in Iceland: it comes in many varieties. It can be soft, it can be a drizzle or even a mizzle, a light shower, a bit of a mist, or even at times “sustained” (in weather person speak). You can walk outside on a soft day in Ireland, but in Uganda when rain is hard, you tend to let it do its own thing and keep well out of its way. So that means that you stay wherever you are (especially if you happen to be still in bed when it starts) and simply let it happen. Even if that means not coming to class, so be it. Even if it means missing or coming far too late to be let in to an exam, so be it.

And in Kampala time appears to be suspended when it rains because everything comes to a stop – not idling in neutral stop, more park and hand brake time. Irish drivers who are used to driving to the noise of their windscreen wipers have a great time: they can get right across the city in thirty minutes or less.

But back to timekeeping: in the good old days when everyone worked outside in the shamba (garden), there was no point working when it rained, so you didn’t. And even though most of our students don’t remember those times, they remember the “stay out of the rain” advice. But it’s not only rain that affects time. If the dance, party, disco or whatever is supposed to start around ten, you can bet your bottom shilling that it won’t start starting until midnight at least. I suppose it all comes from living without a watch. Some of my friends have, told me that it’s painful to make yourself do things just because it is time to. I myself must confess that I’ve become a lot more relaxed about time than I used to be. For a while in my life I thought I was starting to turn into my granny by getting ready for a ten-o-clock bus at seven thirty in the morning and waiting on the bottom stair with my coat on until the big hand was on six and the wee hand on nine. Even though I’m rarely more than a polite fifteen minutes late, I still feel I’m making progress on the clock front.

At any rate, when yours truly gets back to the land of light mists and soft days, I’ll still take off my watch because the publicans always call “time” anyway – even though they don’t always mean it, and you can stay a while more if they’re up to a late night and know that the cops are busy somewhere else (especially if that means “busy” in their own bar!).

English in the Tropics

January 1995

For the new-comer to Uganda, spoken English can sometimes be quite confusing for the first few months. Although East African English is far from the pidgin spoken in West Africa (I recently found out that “fook off paddy” means “goodbye friend” – isn’t that something?), nevertheless, it does take a bit of getting used to. For example, “You are smart” has nothing whatsoever to do with the level of your IQ, but refers to the fact that you have taken a bit of trouble with your appearance and put on a nice frock for a change. Similarly, “You are lost” doesn’t refer to your lack of direction but to the fact that you haven’t been around for a few days.

Where I find things really difficult, especially when reading students’ work, is the confusion of phrases and the curtailment of expressions. Did you know that in Uganda you tend to “eat from the dinning (sic) hall” or that you “study from the library”? And you never pick up your shopping, you simply “pick it”. The radio will not be out of order but just “out”. Nor will you ever go to collect something from “up there”, but from “up”. My students often tell me when I ask solicitously if they are finding the course difficult, that they are “coping up” with it. It took me quite some time to adjust my ear to all this but I now find that I’m speaking that way myself when I need to be understood quickly.

My own take on the state of the English language has a lot to do with the fact that many of the missionaries who taught in the early Teacher Training Colleges were not native speakers. And so they tended to pass on their own brand of English to their students who, in turn, passed it on to theirs. But Ugandan English can be fun because it is often more colourful than the everyday version. And direct translations from local languages can often cause a few eyebrows to be raised. In Bantu and Nilotic languages, the third person singular pronoun is not differentiated into he, she or it: the sense can be gleaned from the sentence itself. But it is often comical when I hear students refer to The Man as “she” because he hasn’t a single she bone in his body!

Most interesting linguistically is the use of the passive in cases where blame should be taken by the subject. Let me give you a graphic example: if you fall of your bicycle for any reason at all, even bad driving, you will often tell people that “the bicycle threw me”. And if you break a glass during the drying process, you will invariably say that it simply fell (although most of us do that). And if you are chopping veggies and happen to misjudge the distance between the blade of the knife and your finger, you will tell everyone that the knife cut you, which technically, I suppose it did.

I was buying meat at the village on the main road a few weeks ago and the butcher told me I owed him twenty thousand shillings. According to my reckoning, it should have been twenty-five. When I pointed this out to him he wailed: “I have stolen myself”. Of course, I understood what he meant but it was an interesting way to put it. And an unfortunate plumber, when trying to earth the power line, streaked out of my house yelling that the electricity had “killed” him – a liberal dose of brandy quickly brought him back from the dead! Oh, that it were always so simple!

A child who is in any way unruly or a dog who barks longer than necessary to alert you about visitors and subsequently jumps on them, will be described as “stubborn”, while the mother of a newborn child will be said to have “got a baby”, or more simply, “she delivered”. If you have malaria, you will simply have fever and a cold is always ‘flu. Here, we generally use the word vehicle no matter whether car, lorry, or bus, and to travel to Kampala on a matatu will be referred to as going “by public”. When you have paid for an item in a shop, you will wait for your “balance” if you have proffered a larger sum than the item cost. When someone dies, people will often tell you that they are going to bury. Initially I thought that congregation actually did the burying themselves. 1 was immensely relieved at my first funeral that I didn’t have to take a turn with the hoe. “Did you pray this morning?” doesn’t ask about your kneeling prowess at the side of your bed but translates as “Did you go to Church this morning?”. And if you ask someone: “Have you ever been to Fort Portal?” the response is likely to be: “Yes, I have ever been there”. And (quite worryingly) bees “bite” — that made me wonder about the size of their teeth! More anon.

I love it, and even though my own transition to Ugandan English was a subconscious one, I now have to think twice about how I speak when I go back to the Land of Welcoming Publicans – although they would probably suppose that I had just supped too much of the Black Stuff.

Ants in Your Pants

November 1994 Ants in Your Pants

While it is true that thinking about tropical Africa can conjure up images of huge spiders, mad bees, all sorts of snakes, and other large tropical creepy crawlies, Uganda is not at all a haven for all these scary denizens of the insect world. If you want spiders, mate, I’m afraid you’ll have to go Down Under, because Uganda can’t compete with the antipodes for spiders that can kill just by looking at you. However, we are not without our own beasties that can, and often do, inflict a fair amount of discomfort, pain, and even death at times.
A case in point is the red ants – sometimes called Fire Ants or Safari Ants. These creatures are amazing but you don’t really want to mess with them. They seem to get really active during the rainy seasons and for them, really active means moving house or simply going major walkabout. So, you are minding your own business and taking a leisurely stroll when up ahead you see a dark wavy line on your path. When you investigate, you will see trillions of reddish-coloured ants all marching in a thick column with larger soldier ants patrolling the perimeter of the caravan with front legs or whatever raised (I imagine menacingly) to get a scent of what is going down in the neighbourhood. Now when I say thick column, I mean four inches or so and a lot of ants can fit in such a small number of inches. If you put a stick into the column, a frighteningly huge number of ants climb it in nano seconds, and if you are not quick enough to drop the stick, they continue up your arm, and then you really are in trouble mate.
But when you don’t know about the stick thing and just walk through them, then I guarantee that you will take off your trousers, skirt, knickers, whatever, just as fast as they made it up your legs. Those mothers bite. And when they bite, they don’t let go – they just keep those jaws locked on and you have to pull the heads off to get them off your bum. I know about this. I know because I’ve been there and done that and it was so humiliating that I’m not going to talk about it anymore. Now I give them a really, really wide berth – the same kind of berth I would give say, to a hippo.
But Pea Brain didn’t know about the stick thing or the wide berth thing, and the first time she saw the dark wavy line, she got excited about having something lively to play with. My yells didn’t really hit high enough decibels to instil terror into the dog and she ploughed straight into them, snout first. Sure enough, she ploughed straight out again almost instantly but not fast enough. I spent an hour picking the heads out of her, and Madam wasn’t well pleased. The third phobia has now been identified. It is, in fact, more than a little bit comical to see the dog turn tail and hoof it back into the house faster than the speed of light at the merest hint that an ant may be taking a walk that day.
Last week, the whole house was surrounded by them – not just one group, but a number of different ones. Just as an experiment, I put some chicken bones (I know, but protein has to be eaten somehow and The Man likes it) in their path. I’m not telling a lie when I say that within five minutes, the bones were stripped white. The Farm Manager told me that a traditional punishment for crime in some parts of Africa in the past was to tie a person smeared with honey to a tree in the vicinity of these ants. That kind of death must be one of the worst imaginable.
To add to the terror of the ants in the rainy seasons, we now have a colony of wild bees that have made a home just under the roof tiles above my bedroom window, presumably for all seasons. It’s an interesting addition to the dawn chorus having a million or so bees buzzing in the background. I myself have a mild phobia where bees are concerned, but I’m learning to ignore them. I hope they can keep on ignoring me. I’m looking forward to the honey though, but I haven’t a clue how I’m going to get it away from the bees.