Category Archives: Early Days

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.

Night Noises

March 1994 Night Noises

Nine months down the line and I’m still not entirely used to the noise of the African night: it truly is different from anything else you have ever heard. The few owl hoots and crickets we are familiar with in the northern hemisphere are nothing compared to the night chorus of the southern hemisphere. It starts just before the sun has slipped away and continues unabated through most of the early part of the night. Crickets start first, then the flogs down in the swamp and in the dog’s bath at the bottom of the garden join in, and then all sorts of insects contribute their own strange noises intermittently until it all becomes a glorious symphony.
The flogs, of course, come in different voices: sopranos, tenors, and bases, all with different songs. Flogs, by the way, are really frogs as you’ve probably guessed, but in Uganda, as in some of the Far Eastern countries, rs and ls get confused in English. Before Christmas I was in the staff club on a no-current night having my Special by paraffin lamp, when I felt something cold and slimy land on my leg. I’m not normally that squeamish but the snake episode had taught me not to take anything for granted. My scream brought Sefus the barman to my side and he promptly dropped to the ground to peer under the table. Sadly, his machismo was not going to be measured: “It’s only a flog, Dee”, he said rather despondently. So ‘flogs’ they have been ever since.
The other night I got to bed quite late on account of having been invited by the Irish Consul to a bit of a do in Kampala to celebrate St Patrick’s Day. I’m usually in bed at nine-o-clock – I find that I can’t keep my eyes open by then even though I was very much a night owl in Ireland (someone told me that the altitude might have something to do with it), so one in the morning was a bit unusual. I was just dropping off to the background melody of bits of Danny Boy endlessly replaying itself in the hard drive, when I was awakened by the most awful wailing piercing the cricket-filled night. Out of bed and out on the balcony to see what was up. Thankfully Pea Brain was still in her run and had not been attacked by strange wild night creatures, but she was obviously unsettled by the racket. It seemed to be coming from the direction of the hospital, and as I listened I began to discern words in the wailing. It scared me to death listening to that keening in the depths of the night and it reminded me of the old stories about banshees wailing about the place when somebody was about to die. I found out the next day that someone did, in fact, die during the night in the hospital. And when someone dies, the mother/daughter/sister/cousin begins the grieving process very vocally so that everyone knows that she has lost a dear one. This woman lost a child and her keening lasted for the good part of thirty minutes. It was chillingly haunting.
A less sad night crier is the heron who slowly climbs up a scale about five or six notes and then glides back down again until it has reached the original note. And when you hear that shrieking cry at four in the morning, you want to crawl deeper under your sheets for protection against all the beasties that might be roaming around in the night. The heron’s friend, the owl, is something else entirely: this particular species of owl makes the most amazingly deep pig-like noises, and I honestly believed that the dog was in serious danger from wild boars roaming around at night until the Farm Manager enlightened me.
Then there are the bats: big ones, small ones, and medium-sized ones. Their squeaky radar sounds are a familiar part of the African night, and this campus alone must be home to a million times more bats than exist in the whole of Ireland. There is a part of Kampala called Bat Valley and I can only speculate that the majority of its inhabitants have tiny eyes and legs on wings. If you sit by our staff club at twilight, you will see thousands of them exiting from under the roof off to begin their nightly search for food. It’s an ariel version of the migration of the wildebeest.
The other creatures that take off at dusk in search for food are perhaps highest in the food chain, and among all the noises of the African night, their high-pitched hummings are noises that you definitely do not want to hear. Just as you snuggle down under the sheet and your hard drive is falling over for the day, nine times out of ten one of these irritating little beasties will start to sing soprano into your ear. Waaagh! A mosquito! You simply can’t sleep with a mosquito in the room. Even if you cover yourself from head to toe, they will find a way to bite you through the sheet or on the top of your head– they are not terribly fussy how they get their grub.
At first, I wasn’t too concerned about these irritating night-time bites, but as I began to read more about Uganda, I came to realise that these innocent-looking little insects are seriously deadly. The number of children who die needlessly each year from malaria is shocking. The number of adults who die needlessly each year from malaria is equally shocking. The female amopheles mosquito is the one to watch out for: she is very small but also extremely cunning, and her hiding places can be hard to find. Most of the mosquitos in Uganda seem to be resistant to Chloroquine, the commonly-available (and relatively cheap) prophylaxis – and, for many people, treatment. Therefore, if you are planning to stay in the tropics for a long time, you might be better to stop taking the pills altogether. I stopped taking Lariam after two weeks because they gave me really bad nightmares and I found myself swaying in the middle of complicated musings about ancient Greek ethics. The nightmares stopped but the paranoia set in and I used to get out of bed almost every night hunting for these evil little beasties until someone told me to go and buy a net. An amazingly simple solution to a nasty problem! You can lie inside your net with a great big happy smile on your face (and, if you are feeling naughty, a two-finger salute at the ready) while madame mossie sings to her heart’s content because she isn’t going to suck any blood out of you. Guaranteed a good night’s sleep.
But just as the mosquitos have decided that they are fed up with you and your net, and the bats are making their weary way home to their hanging-upside-down-places, the dawn noises begin. And they are much, much louder than the night noises in a way. I don’t think I have set my alarm clock since I arrived last June. If you can sleep through numerous cocks proclaiming their territories, the starlings fighting with one another in voices that could well have been the inspiration for the Monty Python boys pretending to be girls, the Gray Plantain Eaters who cackle madly at each other every time they move to another branch, and the numerous other birdies who have to clear the sleep out of their voice boxes as soon as they wake up, then you are either unconscious or deaf. I’ve tried the spongy airline ear plugs on Saturdays when I want a bit of a lie in, but they don’t do a lot in the way of assisting quiet sleep. But all in all, it is a lovely way to waken up – much better than the wind-up clock I used to put in a saucepan in the old, cold days.

A Woman’s Work …

February 1994 A Woman’s Work

When you take a walk off campus down towards the village, as I tend to do in those evenings when my feet are not sore from standing in the classroom for a good part of the day, you are immediately struck by the busyness of this small place. There are people everywhere. You are also struck by what you might be tempted to describe as the poverty of the place. The houses are mostly small mud buildings with corrugated iron roofs and curtains for doors. The shops are really little more than houses arranged with shelves displaying a meagre selection of goods. You can go into every single shop and find the same things in all of them. You can actually buy cigarettes singly – something I haven’t done for twenty odd years and trying hard not to do again but failing miserably. You will also notice an awful lot of men sitting outside the houses and shops whiling away the day-time hours in conversation or playing omweso, a kind of chess that is extremely difficult to master.
The women, on the other hand, never seem to put their bums on stools or steps: they are busy from dawn until dusk – you might even say from womb to tomb because even the little ones and the elderly have their jobs to do. You know the way they say that a woman’s work is never done? Well in Uganda that is more true than anywhere else I have ever been. I will be teaching a gender course next year and I’m doing a preliminary bit of observation on the spot, so to speak. I’ve been struck so many times by the different attitudes to gender identity in Africa and have been trying, in my own limited way, to understand what it is like being a woman in Africa. What it is like belonging to a different culture than the culture I am used to. I am reading the work of Ugandan scholar, Okot p’Bitek, who wrote The Song of Lawino and The Song of Ocol, generally regarded as two of the most famous literary works of East Africa around 1966. Very basically, the Songs can be understood as a commentary on the cultural fracture that was the result of colonialism and the introduction of western education.
The Song of Lawino, the wife’s song, takes the form of a long lament on her husband Ocol’s behaviour, attitudes, and beliefs which are the result of his western education. He no longer appreciates the traditional (seemingly simple) values by which she lives her life in the village. He scorns all her accomplishments: she is illiterate and unlearned in the ways of the world while he is a man of letters and has adopted the ways of the “white man”. Lawino knows what has happened to her husband and she is angry with him; in fact, she goes as far as saying that Ocol and all those who try to be “western” are no longer men (that is no longer a “man” according to Acholi culture): “their manhood”, she says, “was finished in the classrooms”!
But according to Ocol, Lawino is not a woman according to the western standards with which he has become familiar:
Woman of Africa (he says)
Sweeper
Smearing floors and walls
With cow dung and black soil,
Cook, ayah, the baby tied on your back,
Vomiting,
Washer of dishes,
Planting, weeding, harvesting,
Store-keeper, builder,
Runner of errands,
Cart, lorry,
Donkey….
Woman of Africa
what are you not?
Apart from identifying the huge amount of physical work done by many women in Africa today, this wonderful piece also shows how traditional cultural values, beliefs, and practices are judged to be deficient in the light of western practices.
While I was trying to work out why the men appear to be idle and the women appear to do all the work, p’Bitek showed me that the introduction of western culture and religions ruptured the traditional ways of doing things and behaving. Because the colonialists educated only boys, girls, and many of the women of today, were not exposed to the different world view that boys were. Since many women remained largely illiterate, they were deemed fit to stay at home and bear and look after as many children as possible. In other words, men tend to make all the decisions within the family.
I am continuing my course preparations for the gender class but I have a very long way to go before I can begin to understand how the women of Africa themselves respond to the impetus from abroad that clamours for equality with men. More anon.

Post-Nativity Bovine

January 1994 Home to Detox and a Mad Cow

It is indeed very good to be back in Uganda again. The publicans in the old country were very welcoming and relieved me of a considerable amount of punts, but the supermarkets scared the shit out of me — far, far, far too much choice! But I loved the Christmas visit, so much so that the first ten miles of the journey back were sad, tear-filled miles, but I now find that I love Uganda too. When I reached The Equator on Saturday after an I-don’t-know-how-many-hours journey, my first job was to find the dog so that she could get her first doggie treat. Hilda wasn’t in her room but I tried the door handle anyway and was instantly jumped on by a huge animal with big ears that I very nearly didn’t recognize. My, my, what big teeth she has! The welcoming tail wagging continued unabated for a couple of hours, most likely related to doggie treats in abundant supply than having mistress home again.
The only downside was that the water supply had failed again and the grime of three different airports was getting me down so much I resorted to the local way of bathing. You fill a large basin with rain water – be careful it’s not likely to be warm – and then you throw the water over yourself from the top down. After vigorous soaping of the entire body, you throw water again until all the suds are in the basin. I have to tell you that it was extremely refreshing (albeit quite messy) but it set me up for the lovely task of unpacking all the goodies.
Then I decided to take Flossie out to get a bit of fresh air. It was a lovely balmy evening, and contrary to the original plan, the dog ended up taking me for a walk. We moseyed up the hill towards the place where the chickens, pigs, and cows are, and where Hilda grows vegetables for the kitchen. We call it “the farm” for want of a better word, but don’t let images of Karen Blixen’s farm confuse you because ours is nothing like that. Indeed, the whole campus could be called the farm because during the dry season the cattle herder lets the cows out of their enclosure up the hill to eat the nice grass down the hill on campus. It’s strange to hear a straggly herd of cows and goats chomp away outside your classroom window while you rabbit on about Aristotle. It also means that you have to be careful where you walk, especially when it rains and all the paths have become muddy. But it is idyllic too, and more than once I’ve been overcome by a moment of wonder at the amazing simplicity of life.
Anyway, we were halfway through our walk when suddenly, out of nowhere, this ugly great big lump of scraggy cow broke away from the herd who had, of course, been let loose to keep the grass short, and began to amble towards us. Being a city girl and unused to bovine behaviour, this action sent a mild frisson of angst down my spine, but Pea Brain and I continued courageously for another fifteen yards or so. Mild frisson became moderate to severe when the beast broke into a run towards us with head down and eyes blazing with something or other.
Flossie and I also took to our heels and hoofed it as fast as we could into the nearest bush to take cover. Unfortunately, said bush was bougainvillea, and since they come with thorns attached, we found cover but not comfort. Both of us were truly frightened and I clung to my trembling bundle of fur as if her animality could somehow protect us against the mad cow angrily stomping around the bush looking for an entrance for her great yellow teeth. Eventually, the bovine beastie lost interest in woman and dog and ambled away with agonizing slowness. When it was safe to come out, we escaped painfully from the bougainvillea bush and made a fast retreat home to start removing thorns and putting antiseptic on scratches too numerous to mention. Dog was duly comforted from fast-diminishing supply of doggie treats and me from the newly-replenished supply of Bushmills. That was a close one, I thought. I hope the dog will not be psychologically scarred by cows. But Murphy had decided otherwise and so it came to pass: every time I do a “Barbara Woodhouse” and call “walkies!” she hides under the table.
However, last week we got our revenge – at least I think we did. We heard that the Farm Manager was killing a cow and The Man went to investigate, as men generally do about those sorts of things. Hooray! The mad one was due for the chop so we duly ordered the fillet as a special treat. Lump of dead and totally un-dangerous cow (sans dents) was duly delivered in a plastic bag and The Man decided to have it for supper (well, a bit of it at least). But he couldn’t cut it for love nor money – it was tough as old boot. I didn’t fancy eating it anyway despite the proteins, so guess who had gourmet grub for the next four days? Then it struck me: maybe the old cow had known who would eventually end up eating her and was having her revenge before the event, so to speak. I have resolved never again to eat an animal I have had a barney with before it gets the chop.

The Snake and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

December 1993 Snake Dance

I forgot to tell you this. About three months ago, shortly after I returned from my shopping trip to Ireland to stock up on supplies, 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 Budda kill him”. So if you happen to meet a snake on the Ugandan Equator I have put together the following 10-11-point 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. Close your eyes and ask yourself calmly, despite your mounting fear: “is it really a snake?”
3. Open your eyes and check whether it is indeed such a creature you are backing away from.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. Hang around for another bit recounting the story of the discovery and kill for all those arriving for the postmortem.
10. 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 part of The Plan is optional and only holds for really big snakes:
11. 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.
One 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), periodically relived various moments of the retail therapy, and wondered when I would use the lovely packet of smoked salmon sitting proudly on a prominent shelf in the fridge. The frothy eggs sizzled as they hit the hot oil in the first stage of being transformed into a tasty omelette, and they continued to sizzle long past the stage when the sizzling should have fizzled out a fair bit. The happy humming stopped while I wondered what kind of marvellous Ugandan eggs sizzled so loudly.
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 frightened snake and it 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 happily 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 manoeuver is not in the ten-point 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 the dancer realized that danger was approaching and she made a hastily ungracious escape from the kitchen. When the snake had finally stopped sizzling I crept back 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 an unnaturally long 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 for a Puff Adder! 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 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 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 10-point 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 10-point 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 twenty-odd years have seen fewer snakes than I have in just a few months.
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.
It was then that I decided to get a dog, a large one that will bark for Ireland if ever a snake dares to slither its way into my kitchen again. I’ve never had a dog and am really looking forward to rearing my first early snake-warning system.
I have, however, become quite proud of my actions on that 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.

African Arrival

June 1993 African Arrival

When the sky turns the darkest shade of luminescent blue possible before it can be called another colour, and when the trees are silhouetted against it in a pattern that would immediately be patented by the lace makers of Bruges, and when a humungous yellow moon is climbing up over the banana trees on the eastern horizon, and you happen to be sitting in a comfy chair with visual access to a sizeable expanse of this sky with an ice-cold Nile Special in your hand, then I would say that you are as close to heaven this side of Peter’s gate as it is possible to get. Actually, I could say that about many things in this land of paradoxes and contrasts, but that time when the sun begins its rather fast slide behind the western swamps and the crickets and flogs (I’ll explain later) begin their nightly music, is a special time indeed! However, should you venture outside to gaze in wonder at the night sky without thought for the other kinds of quite small irritating nightlife in this part of the world, then you are likely to get back home with extremely itchy patches of newly-bitten ankle.

When I saw the full beauty of the night sky of the Southern hemisphere for the first time I couldn’t even begin to describe it without sounding over the top: black velvet backdrop with millions of “fire folk sitting in the air”, and the clearest, or rather cloudiest, Milky Way I have ever seen! It was simply spectacular!  It reminded me of the only other time I had seen such a night sky. A power cut in North Donegal in Ireland sometime around 1987, just about the time the tired publicans were persuading the last of the hardened drinkers to stagger back to their own homes, let me see – if indeed ‘see’ is the right word – the same kind of sky. That night The Brother and I got home (a mere one hundred yards) by holding onto a wall – not only because of the copious amounts of the Black Stuff inside us but mainly because of the black stuff all around us, despite the wonderful shiny bits that glistened above us like an ad for Amsterdam diamonds.

“Hey! Look at that. S’ni’t class?”

“What is?”

“The sky, stupid”.

“What sky?”

“That sky!”

“Shit!! S’not bad”, he said, now in a better position to appreciate its full majesty.

“What do you mean ‘s’not bad’, s’amazing! S’the blackest sky with the shiniest stars I’ve ever seen”.

And it was, at least until I arrived in Uganda on a hot, balmy Tuesday night in June 1993.

They say that from space countries that use a lot of power like Belgium shine as if they had free electricity from their national grid. Uganda doesn’t shine at all from space, or even from a plane or even from the ground because there are so few lights. When you are coming in to land at Entebbe everything is dark and quite scary – possibly because you come in, rather scarily, over the vast expanse of Lake Victoria and the flight I generally take arrives at night. But the good part about not having many country lights is that Uganda can see the shine in the sky because it doesn’t shine from the ground. If I had to choose whether to have all the roads and streets lit or the sky lit I would take the sky anytime, after all, why do cars have headlights and people have candles and torches?

Entebbe airport doesn’t have those expanding suction things they attach to planes so that people can walk to the baggage claim areas inside the building. Instead, you walk down a short flight of stairs to the tarmac and follow the people in front of you to the terminal building. But when you first reach the open door of the plane most of your senses go into overdrive. The warm air seems to envelop you, and the smell of this African air: musky and burnt, dusty and hot and delicious – most definitely exotic. I loved it already and the memories of tearful family farewells at Belfast International Airport were starting to be filed in a deeper part of the already heavily-fragmented part of the hard drive I call my brain.

That was my first really different night-time experience. As for the day-time experiences, I don’t quite know where to begin to describe Uganda. Perhaps let me stick with my night-time experiences for the moment. My arrival at the airport might be as good a place as any to give a first impression of this wonderful and sometimes confusing place. Of all the countries I have ever visited (and I suppose in the grand scheme of things they aren’t too many) Uganda’s welcome was a big, smiling one – unlike some other countries’ welcomes that I could mention (you know who you are).

Initially scary-looking Immigration Official: “Welcome to Uganda! How long will you be staying?”

Rather Timid Me: “I don’t really know but my employers are organizing a work permit”.

Really Quite Friendly IM: “A Visitor’s Visa for three months then?”

Now smiling too M: “Yes. Thank you”.

Quite Handsome Too IM: “You’re welcome. Enjoy Uganda”.

Wow! Did I get on the wrong flight? Am I in somewhere else? What about Idi Amin? Why is the whole arrivals hall lit by two 40-watt bulbs?  Why is everyone smiling? Why doesn’t the luggage thingy go round and round? Why do the customs officials have torches instead of sniffer dogs? Why? Because I have landed at an airport currently without current: “load shedding” it’s called here when the powers (sorry!) that be select rather large areas of the country to be cut off during the time when people really want to cook their evening meal and then read a book or newspaper or relax beside the radio or in front of the telly or arrive at their airport for the very first time. But whatever the state of the national grid (more of that later  – in fact rather a lot more), I had arrived!!

So. One arrivals hall (under construction then but really classy now). One luggage claim carousel (extremely rickety looking anyway, but definitely not moving). One channel marked both green and red (irrespective of any type of declarations to be made by the foolhardy). It didn’t matter. Here I was. In Africa! I was a bit like Bridget Jones’s mother proclaiming the same to Mrs whoever-it-was who was mad enough to accompany her to Kenya.

They apologised for the lack of power when I arrived but I really didn’t care. This was the furthest I’d been in my whole life (actually Johannesburg is further but only in the geographical sense) and I had ARRIVED! Indeed I had, but I was almost on the point of regretting it when we began the 30 kilometre journey to Kampala. They say Italy is bad. They say Donegal is bad. They say Germany is well fast but not actually bad. But they have nothing on Uganda. Your main problem here is to avoid everything else on the road and still arrive where you want to be in one piece. Let me list briefly what you have to miss: the people on bicycles without lights or reflectors, and the pedestrians walking by the side of the road, the mad and the foolhardy walking in the middle of the road, the other moving or stationary vehicles in various states of repair and dis-repair, the really HUGE potholes, and the vehicles that have broken down by the side of the road or in the middle of the road or wherever. It is a nightmare  – frequent adrenalin rushes are par for the course, and near misses quite normal occurrences (a lot more on that later as well). But, I kept telling myself: I had ARRIVED!

When we reached the quite rural (read: “in the middle of the jungle” – we say “bush”) place on The Equator (I missed the actual crossing because of the blackness all around us) at which I was to teach for the next year (or three years depending on my initial impressions), I spent the first night fully awake because of the noise. Not the kind of noise you and I are used to in cities and in built up towns and villages, but the noise of the natural nightlife. The crickets in Uganda must be on steroids: they vibrate those appendages as if they are in a “make-the-most-noise-per-second” competition.

After week or so you get used to the after-dark sound effects but it really does take an effort. In fact, after a while you find yourself casually asking your neighbour: “Isn’t it so peaceful here? Quite different from a big city, don’t you think?” And it most certainly is, but it is still noisy with a capital N, although you kind of filter out that kind of noise after a while. Filtering out the noise is one thing. Filtering out other things is another matter entirely. Eventually I did doze a bit on that first confusing night, but despite keeping my candle lit all night, bitten ankles and bitten other parts of my anatomy kept waking me and raising my anxiety levels until I decided to get up and experience my first African sunrise.