Category Archives: Early Days

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.

June 1994 Dark Days

June 1994 Dark Days

Examinations are once again upon us. I know this, not only because I have set a good many of them, but also because a pall has descended on this once sunny corner of the world. If that gloomy Jesuit Gerald Manley Hopkins had been sent to Uganda rather than Dublin, I’m convinced that his gloom and doom sonnets wouldn’t have seen the bright light of day. Well maybe the odd sad verse might have cropped up around exam time, but nothing as serious as “cliffs of sheer” and the like. The gloom on campus is almost tangible and it brings me back to the heat-wave days of the Mays and Junes of the past when I too tried to cram a whole year’s work into a meagre week. Everywhere you go, you find students hunkered down over books and pages and pages of joined up that they have to convert into RAM.
I’ve been teaching applied ethics this last semester and I think I’ve frightened a good many of my students with my frequent calls for better treatment of the planet and all its inhabitants. You see, in Africa, rural living is a lot more simple than rural living in Ireland. You grow a lot of what you eat and all your kitchen waste goes back on the compost to assist the next lot of food to be planted. Since you don’t have big supermarkets to shop in, you don’t have the plastic bags, neither do you have the tinned stuff, and you certainly don’t have the packaged frozen stuff. If you do buy a soft drink, it comes in a returnable bottle rather than a throw-away can. Bottles that are non-returnable are recycled many, many times for all sorts of liquids. (I wonder what my empty Waragi bottles are being used for now?)
All this is great and I’m now trying to get our students to practice the rural environment protection that was second nature to their fathers and mothers by being careful about what they throw away. Of course, we have migrated to ball-point pens and other useful implements like that, and we tend to use rather a lot of batteries for radios and cassette players, so these things have to be discarded appropriately. My class has few problems with those sorts of issues. But in our local village the people simply put all the household rubbish on the compost heap as they have done for centuries. The problem here is that in the old days you would come back from food foraging with the goodies wrapped neatly in a banana leaf or stuck nicely on the end of a spear. Nowadays, we come back with food wrapped in black plastic bags.
And this is where the problem starts. Now we all know that a cheap plastic bag has no nutritional value for the soil, and when it is thrown in the shamba (the garden where food is grown), it creates its own environmental damage. An even bigger problem presents itself when cattle graze on the rubbish heaps and ingest the plastic. They die, yes, die. While my students recognize the seriousness of this particular problem, they have few answers. Perhaps a complete ban on plastic bags, I dare to suggest? Too radical, they say, they are really useful things and anyway, carrying your food in a plastic bag has a lot to do with image: you get kudos because it means you can afford to shop in shops rather than having to grow the stuff yourself.
But where my class seriously started questioning my sanity concerned the whole area of animal treatment. Now in Uganda most of the meat for the market is born and grows up in the west of the country in Ankole around Mbarara (lovely word that – one of my visitors decided it was “umbrella”). But because there is no abattoir in the west, cows have to be transported to Kampala for the chop. That in itself doesn’t pose any particular problems – at least not for carnivores – but it does for the bovines being transported. It’s commonplace to see twenty or more beasties crammed into an open truck while their minders ride along on their backs. Bovine legs and horns (and Ankole cattle have serious horns) frequently get stuck in the bars on the side of the truck or in each other, and raw fear can be be seen in their big sad eyes as the truck makes its often slow, bumpy way to the capital city. Personally, I can’t bear to look, but then I’m squeamish about those sorts of things.
But that’s how it is, my students tell me. Maybe it is, I say, but it doesn’t have to be that cruel. Their big eyes look at me without comprehension at this point. Although, in a country where kids are dying at an alarming rate from treatable diseases, my worries about cows appear insignificant. Get a grip, I tell myself!
Where I haven’t gotten down on my back with my legs in the air concerns the previously mentioned Buddhist-like advice about snakes (“if you meet ’em, kill ’em). “But snakes are dangerous, they bite. We have to kill them”, they say. “But why?” I wail. “Because it’s better to kill it before it kills you”. “But do they always kill you?” “Well …. em … no, but they could”. “Right, but do they?” We’ve gone around in circles on this one and neither party is conceding defeat, at least not yet. I blame the bad PR in the Book of Genesis myself because I’ve noticed that they do, in fact, tend to slither away when people come near them.
In order to provoke my class even further, I asked them about insect rights. “Yeah … well …. they do have rights and they’re important to human beings. Take bees: they give us honey and spiders eat other insects”. Smug, satisfied smiles all around. “What about mosquitoes?” I asked with a wide nasty grin in my head if not on my face. Mad giggling erupts here, quite lengthy mad giggling. John McEnroe style “you cannot be serious” from just about the whole class. “They give you malaria; they can give you cerebral malaria, and that can kill you”. Point taken and I concede their arguments. So when a snake comes my way, I’ll back off. But when a mossie starts singing into my ear, I’ll swat it without too much regret.
The result of all this unfamiliar discussion has confused my class. They will have to do some serious thinking outside the box and try to cram possible examination question answers that they think I’ll want to read and, even more importantly, reward with good marks. That’s why they’re all of a sweat. The downside of all this is that the exam scripts have to be marked before I can make the annual pilgrimage back to the Emerald Isle for scholarly activities, retail therapy, pub visits, and family catching up.

May 1994 Malaria Remedy

May 1994 Malaria Remedy

Finally, the builders have declared the house finished (we’ve been camping to date) and The Man pronounced it satisfactory. The few bits and pieces we’ve managed to put together since the container heist have been moved to our new accommodations. I can actually see Lake Victoria from my bedroom window – such a lovely sight to wake up to. I shall never close my bedroom curtains again – when I get around to making them, that is. But there is a lot of work to be done though because my sister and brother-in-law are coming to visit in two weeks. I have to polish up the few bits of furniture that survived the looting  in Kenya, fill the newly-acquired freezer, wash and de-flea the dog, and borrow some sheets so that they have a decent bed to sleep in. I am excited because they have been in America for the past year or more and I haven’t seen them for ages.
The day we moved was really exciting. Finally, home home! And the dog has a huge garden (albeit rather empty at the moment – I was thinking about giving Dermot Gavin the challenge of a lifetime but I’m not sure I could cope with all that just now) to run around in – no more kennel at night! Yippie! But the biggest pleasure for me is that we now have an oven! Since I arrived, we have been cooking all our meals on a small two-ring gas contraption perched on top of the rickety table that attracts snakes. Imagine being able to make a really crispy cheese pasta bake, a sponge cake, cheese on toast, a roast of a Sunday (for The Man, of course!)! I have been heady with anticipation – much like the dog and her hoofs except I haven’t got a tail to wag with excitement.
The Man thought we should celebrate The Move and produced a bottle of Uganda Waragi.
“Waragi, he explained, “is the Uganda equivalent of gin, and it’s really good.”
“What is it made of?”
“Bananas.”
Aha, bananas again! What wonderful fruit – I’m more and more convinced that a banana was probably what Eve persuaded Adam to have a bite of when they were still living the easy life in their birthday suits.
“What do you drink it with?”
“Tonic, of course”, he said, whipping out two bottles of the same from the fridge.
“Wow! Where did you get those?”
Tonic is like hens’ teeth in Kampala.
“You have to know where to look”, he smirked. “And, the best thing about Waragi and Tonic is the tonic. I think the reason I haven’t had malaria all these years is because of the quinine in the tonic.”
“Bring on the tonic!”
He did. Very tasty. A bit more fruity than gin. Without the juniper. But great stuff all the same.
In a jovial and expansive mood, he decided to cook a roast even though it was only Saturday, while I went to the office to finish typing exam questions for the mock examinations next week. When I came back around six thirty, the smell of real cooking overwhelmed me! It reminded me of Christmas at home. It was then that I finally, finally, felt like I was home home for the first time (pace pater). And it was a delicious feeling. It was also a delicious meal, and Small Dog though she had died and gone to heaven when the fatty bits finally made it into her bowl.
I’ve now decided that Waragi and tonic is the drink (early evening drink, I mean – the Bushmills still retains its rightful place as the bedtime prandial). Besides the gin has medicinal properties: acting as an intoxicant relaxant and a prophylaxis for malaria at the same time is no mean feat. I hope my sister likes it too.
She did. And the brother-in-law did as well. They were well pleased with their bed too, except that the brother-in-law had really bad dreams because of the malaria tablets (the dreaded Laraim) and tried to strangle my sister in the middle of the night.
We toured Kampala. We shopped in Kampala. I calmed their nerves in Kampala after we witnessed a bank robbery at gunpoint. I demonstrated a bit of my newly-acquired Kampala driving techniques for them, which also resulted in much calming of nerves. We went east to the source of the Nile in Jinja (actually all we saw was water hyacinth). We went west to Queen Elizabeth National Park. We visited the grass-thatched royal tombs at Kisubi and sat demurely on mats on the floor while the guide explained the workings of the place. We drank a goodly amount of prophylatic tonic with Waragi. We ate a lot of oven-cooked meals. And we said very tearful farewells at Entebbe when it was time for them to go back to the watery summer in Ireland.

Mweya Safari Lodge

May 1994 The Park

Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP to the initiated and formerly Kazinga National Park) must be the heart of the pearl that is Uganda. The first time I visited The Park was in September last year on the way back from a quick visit to Fort Portal and Kasese. The Man casually asked, somewhere in the middle of a swamp about five hours from home:
“Would you like a cup of coffee?”
Is the Pope Catholic? – of course I wanted a cup of coffee! We had been driving for hours and I was dying for a pee.
“Then I know just the place.”
“Where?” says I surveying the bush stretching for miles in all directions.
“Here”, says he as we turned off the badly-potholed tarmac road. “It’s a bit of a way down this gravel road.”
“What do you mean a bit of a way?”
“Well, just down here we hang a left and then we’re there”.
“How far just down here?” I asked with more than a hint of suspicion in my voice.
“About twenty-five kilometres”, said he without a trace of shame.
When you are dying for a pee, twenty-five kilometres is twenty-four and a three quarters of a kilometre too many, but The Man explained that he couldn’t stop on the way for fear that lions or hyenas might get me when I was in a compromised situation, if you understand. He stubbornly refused to answer my plaintive “are-we-nearly-theres?”.
Those kilometres went slowly – as they tend to do when you don’t know where you are going – but when he turned left off the Kazinga Chanel Track onto a narrow strip of land leading upwards to the spectacular peninsula atop which sits Mweya Lodge, I realised that it was worth every agonizing kilometre. It truly was a sight for sore eyes and sore bladder.
“It’s beautiful”, I breathed in awe.
“Yes, isn’t it”, said he as he swatted a brightly-coloured yellow bird away from the sugar bowl.
“Don’t scare it! It’s a lovely wee bird. I want to take a picture of it.”
“Lovely wee birds shit in the sugar, dear”, Mr Pragmatic responded.
“I want to come back and stay.” Can we? Can we?”
“Maybe when your sister comes in May”.
And so we did.
This hotel is situated in the most wonderful place on the planet, a place that has been inhabited since the time of the hunter gatherers. The views over the Chanel and Lake Edward are something to write home about, especially when the moon rises over the water. The snow-capped Mountains of the Moon (aka the Rwenzori Mountains) frame the view from the west and the Virunga Mountains of the Democratic Republic of Congo form a solid wall to the south behind the Lake. When you live in a land-locked country, far from the sea and you happen to love the sea, the sight of this lake could almost make you believe you were back in Donegal. The sunset behind the Mountains of the Moon which rise majestically behind the small town of Katwe just can’t be described without indulging in purple prose.
The service and the state of the rooms were something else but we won’t talk about that for the moment – suffice it to say that when the ownership changes, these things change too.
After a five hour journey in the tropics, you tend to get a bit sweaty if your car doesn’t have air con, so the first thing you do when you get to your room is have a shower. Remember the Swamp showers at the Equator? The showers at Mweya are Hippo showers. The water is pumped directly up from the Chanel which is full of hippos who frolic, fight, sleep, and do their pees and poos in the water. Peculiar smell, hippo water, but then you aren’t here for beauty treatments, as The Man sagely remarked.
An early morning game drive to see the three lions Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is one of the high points of the trip, except that you have to get up at five thirty to catch a glimpse of them. Apparently they sleep the day away hidden deep in the bush. But if you miss them, there are lots of other animals beginning to wake up at that hour: elephants, buffalo, Uganda Kobs, waterbuck, bushbuck, warthogs, and giant forest hogs, hyaenas, mongooses, baboons, black-and-white colobus monkeys, and the huge (quite fast on their feet incidentally) monitor lizards. They were ugly, if the truth be told, and I wasn’t very keen on them.
The park rangers say that the animals are now starting to come back to the area after a good number of years. Apparently during the Amin years, soldiers hunted the animals to such an extent that the remaining beasts literally ran away. They must feel safe now because we had just turned into the park when an elephant crossed the road about ten feet from our small blue car. It was wildly exciting to see one of these huge animals for the first time, but it was also scary because their tusks are ginormous and the mammys are fiercely protective of their babies.
The boat trip along the Kazinga Channel to the edge of Lake Edward should be on every ornithologist’s wish list. It was here that I first saw the African Jacana – the lillytrotter – the bird with the big feet. All along the banks of the channel, thousands of birds vie with each other for take off and landing rights: pelicans, cormorants, goliath herons, majestic fish eagles, yellow-billed, shoebill and saddlebill storks, black-headed gulls, little egrets, Egyptian geese, reed warblers, crakes, marabu storks, spur-winged plovers, pied wagtails, common sandpipers, sacred ibises, pied kingfishers, the tiny brightly-coloured malachite kingfishers, squacco herons, glossy ibises, and many more. I ran out of film on that trip and missed much more than I captured while hanging over the side of the boat, dangerously close to the yawning jaws of the hippos. Apparently The Park is home to more than 500 species of bird and my Collins Guide is much more well-thumbed now than it was last week. I never thought that I was a bird kind of person but that boat trip is something special.
An evening meal on the terrace overlooking the water is a great way to finish the day. A huge fire is lit outside to keep the animals away but you can still hear the plaintive call of the hyena in the distance – very exotic that!
Unfortunately, the fire doesn’t keep the lake flies away: there are millions of these tiny mosquito-like creatures attracted by the lights of the lodge. I originally thought they were mosquitos until one of the waiters told me that the difference is that lake flies keep their back legs on the wall while mosquitos rest with their back legs raised away from where they land. But good grief, if you have to fish your specs out of your bag and then peer closely to see how they have landed, you could have been bitten by their mates a dozen times in the meantime!
Replete with tilapia, we were making our tired way back to our rooms when suddenly a huge black shape appeared in front of us. Chomp, chomp, chomp, went the dark shadow. Gradually our eyes adjusted to the darkness and we began to make out the shape of a hippo. A fully-grown hippo can weigh in at three thousand kilos and can get through thirty kilos of grass in one night. That’s a lot of grass to digest and get rid of in the water during the day! We gave the hippo a very wide berth since they have the reputation of being one of the most dangerous of all the park animals. Unfortunately, he and a few friends found a lush patch of grass outside our rooms and they chomped their way noisily through the early hours of the night. In the morning, we found ample evidence of their digestive ability, and suddenly the idea of a hippo shower became a lot less attractive than ever before.
But the whole experience was wonderful and I’m certainly going back. My all-time favourites were the warthogs and the mongooses. Simba, Scar, and company were ok, but they just lay there staring back at the funny creatures with the flashing black boxes, with bored expressions on their magnificent fight-marked faces. The elephants were big, even the babies, and it was amazing to see them in the wild rather than in the zoo. The hippos, quite frankly, scared me because I thought they would tip the boat over, and the various kinds of deer were too plentiful to get worked up about. No, it has to be Pumba and Timon’s cousin the mongoose. In my view Mr Disney picked the best of them all to make stars of. I wonder if they could lend me a Pumba to keep the grass down in the back garden?

Foot Fetishes

April 1994 Foot Fetishes

If you are following this story, you will know that Small Dog is now a frisky adolescent with even bigger teeth. She has also developed her own likes and dislikes, and among the likes we can number all sorts of things to do with feet: feet licking, shoe chewing, and hoof eating. Hoofs, I hear you say? The story about hoofs is simple. Just in the same way that pigs’ trotters are popular with some of the world’s nations, cows’ feet are popular with others. Many people here, especially athletes, cook up the hoofs into a thick tasty soup for muscle- and bone-strengthening purposes. When I was in Ireland knocking back the Guinness and the Bushmills at Christmas, the dog was knocking back hoofs like there was no tomorrow. Hilda had started to cook them as a special treat, and my canine companion is now hooked on them. The most popular phrase in our house is: “Joanna Hoof? (translation: “Do you want a cow’s foot?”).” That sends the dog into paroxysms of delight and the anticipation is almost too much as she whines and whirls continuously until they are cool enough to sink her growing teeth into.
Musa, who works in the garden from time to time (and who is actually full time), is in charge of the hoof-cooking on Saturday mornings. First, the hair and skin is roasted off (terrible smell) and then they are slowly cooked in water until the greyish-brown soup is thick enough to stand on. Said hoofs and soup are then cooled in a shady part of the garden. Small Dog is then very, very happy dog. But I have worked out one thing about dogs. Much as they can speak English, they don’t understand tenses. After hoof has been consumed, don’t under any circumstances ask: “Was your hoof good?” This innocent enough question contains the word “hoof” and Pea Brain thinks another one is on the way and starts the whining-whirling routine all over again. It all got a bit wearing until I worked out the thing about canines and grammar.
The foot-licking exercise can tickle, but if you close your eyes, you can try to imagine having a simple reflexology session. Visitors have to be warned to keep their feet tucked up in their shoes unless they want to be subject to death by licking. The only problem is that most people leave their shoes outside when they enter your house – much in the way that my mother used to make us take off our shoes and put on our slippers at the front door on rainy days. It’s not a rare sight to see ten or twelve assorted pairs of shoes/sandals/flip flops adorning door steps. You know then that visitors have arrived.
The problem is that Small Dog roams the neighbourhood seeking things with foot smells on and brings her finds back to the garden (she prefers flip flops) to while away a few happy hours chewing them into shreds. I’ve tried to get Musa to bring them back before they are too badly chewed, but flip flops all look the same and are relatively inexpensive, so few people have complained so far.
The crunch came the other day as I was washing the lunch-time dishes. My next door neighbour knocked the door rather timidly and came into the kitchen in bare feet holding one fairly nice-looking shoe. Oh God! Not again! Bbosa had left her shoes on her doorstep during lunch and my little thief had nicked one. A quick search of the garden revealed one very well-chewed shoe. I was mortified because said shoes were leather and had cost an arm and a leg in Uganda Shillings. Bbosa politely refused compensation and limped home with one slippery spittle-soaked shoe dangling from her hand.
Lady has been warned that if one more shoe ends up in this garden, she will end up buried under it. I’ve since upped the hoof intake to twice a week hoping that they will keep her occupied enough not to wander out in search of the neighbours’ footware. Fingers crossed! We’re moving to the new house next week and hopefully the fence will be strong enough to keep my canine foot freak confined to home.