Category Archives: In Kampala

When your fingertips are worn out

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

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

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

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

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

Caprines on the Equator

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

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

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

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

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

Endings and New Beginnings

28 February 2019

On this day four months ago, Luna had her first – and last – litter of puppies with Finley. On this day one year ago, I officially retired from academic administration and paid employment. And on this very day, my younger cousin is being buried. Mother of three, cancer survivor twice, and living with MS, an aortic aneurism finally robbed her of older age on the 23rd of this month. We “know” that death is the end of our mortal strivings, but a sudden death never ceases to remind that we are not guaranteed a tomorrow. Death often stops you in your tracks and gives you an unexpected punch to the gut. But in the midst of heaving with sorrow and pain it also acts as a reminder to live life to the very fullest and to be grateful for it, at least for a while until familiarity with old routines rubs the raw edges of grief and realization back to comfortable levels.

Rilke

This is my resolve for now: drinking deeply of life’s red wine. And as I raise my glass to you I say: “rest in peace Ali, rest in eternal peace!”

On a less sombre note, as I come to the first anniversary of retirement from paid employment, I have to say that the ride has not always been a smooth one. It took some very long months before I was finally able to stop turning the period into a comma, to stop thinking about my work. And for those months of mental – if not physical – engagement with my previous employment, it was ever so hard to disengage the cruising button, to shift from 5th to 4th, from 4th to 3rd, and finally down to neutral. The gears were always moving, my worries constant, and my disengagement ever so slow. But finally, just before Christmas past, when the last connections were, rather painfully, cut with what I consider to have been a wonderful achievement in my final working years, I made a decision to let the period remain a period. Both of us did. The Man and I lit some candles, burned some incense, and watched the past rise wisp-like into the evening sky above the lake, its power over us broken, a beginning of sorts in the making.

I will be celebrating my sixty-third birthday later this year. And because 60 is supposed to be the new 40, I have decided to start enjoying myself – read enjoying ‘my unpaid academic work’! After thirty-odd years of hard slog, I am now a woman of otium liberale, living a life of unashamed academic leisure, reading what I want, and taking a great deal more pleasure in my world of books and other things too: landscaping the garden where the big tree came down, making jam and chutney, traveling a bit more, experimenting with Irish soda bread recipes, getting back to calligraphy and playing the piano, and cleaning up after the canines.

New beginnings can be exciting, especially if the path isn’t charted. Not knowing what’s around the corner can be liberating (as well as a little scary if the truth be told) and I am up for what’s coming. The long shadow of my past has finally slipped back from my heels, and I do believe I have gained a little bit of wisdom. I am officially a crone and am embracing cronehood whole-heartedly. Maybe I’ll throw a party and invite the other crones to come and skinny dip at midnight. Or maybe I’ll just chose an inviting book and have an early night.

Grammar, Google, and getting away from it all

Dee Nkozi

I retired officially from university teaching and administration last week on 28 February 2018. This seems an appropriate enough moment to have a quick glance back at a thirty+-year career together with its ups and downs. It all started innocuously enough: the lecturer for the course was on a sabbatical and thought I should have more than just conducting tutorials under my belt. And so I ended up teaching my first full philosophy course in the 1986-87 session when I was nearing the end of my doctoral studies. It was a small class composed mostly of seminary students who had to fulfil their obligations to take a requisite number of philosophy courses, and my course: medieval philosophy, was mandatory. They were mildly interested (at least I thought so at the time), but I was totally hooked! Nights were spent reading until the wee small hours, then writing out each lecture in large readable joined up worried that I be caught out by an innocent but unprepared-for question from a class not much younger than me. I was a nervous wreck at the start of each teaching hour, but they were quite forgiving of any gaps in my knowledge, and, happily, all of them passed the exam!

That was then. Thirty-odd years later a lot more lectures have been written up, slept through, enjoyed, given off the cuff, not-quite-booed-at but nearly, and a lot of dissertations have been supervised. By my reckoning, somewhere in the region of fifty master’s dissertations and a handful of PhDs have kept me up nights and had me out of bed when the moon was still making her rounds. I have lost count of the BA dissertations that, for the most part, had me tearing my hair out.

There were, of course, hard years, dry years, but also – thankfully – more fertile, enjoyable years. One in particular stands out in my memory. Being short of staff at the university on the equator, one colleague in my department and I each ended up teaching three courses in one semester and two in the next. That was to be the first graduation year at our new university, and 18 undergraduate dissertations were also thrown into the mix. I think we both had seven to supervise and somehow managed to farm out the remainder. That was a rough schedule that was made tougher by the fact that I had never taught any of my five courses before. A lot of books came back in the luggage before that year began and a lot of candles were used to read them night after night, getting each lecture ready just before it was due to be given. But apart from all the hard work that was a good year, and it stands out in my memory as the year I finally regarded myself as a university teacher. I learned a lot from teaching (probably more than my students!), especially in the environment and gender courses I taught, so much so that a half-written book has been on my desk gathering dust for the past ten years. It’s called Putting on Trousers that are Empty. Empowerment in a Patriarchal World. Rather a naughty title, but I think you get the central argument! Other more esoteric stuff is also on the back burner and I’m now looking forward to getting back to my academic roots with a follow-up volume to my first book on negative theology – if, as my granny would have said “God spares me”.

Previously in this blog I have highlighted my difficulties with understanding what has come to be known as Uglish (the Ugandan version of English) but over the years my ear has adapted rather well and my brain has finally caught up, so much so that I am almost a fluent speaker at this stage. But given the fact that in Uganda all my students were learning in a second language (for some a third language), English has almost always been a problem. My newly-allocated, end-of-second-year dissertation students were invariably scared sh**less by the third years: “eeeeh she’s too tough”, “she writes ALL over your pages in a green pen and you have to tick off the corrections as you make them”, “she tells you stuff about split infinitives, Oxford commas, colons and semi-colons, and attributive adjectives … she’s nuts” … things like that. No wonder they came for the first consultation in deferential mode. But they thawed as we began to work together, and I’m proud to say not a single BA student failed a dissertation. There were mishaps with two or three MAs but I’d rather not get into that. I did, therefore, spend an inordinate amount of time correcting bad English, but to my dismay only a handful of students over the years learned from the corrections – three of whom are now PhDs, (and I am happy to have been their doktormütter). But after so long, I have now lightened up a bit and am a little more tolerant; I “cope up with it” and let some Uglish slide – after all, everyone else will know what they mean!

But what I can’t let slide is the plagiarism. I know it’s not a local problem but it has become endemic in Uganda’s institutions. And the awful thing is very few academic staff complain about it; even fewer academics do anything to detect or prevent it. There is a number of reasons for this, not least is bottom-line laziness stemming from having two or three jobs to make ends meet. But stubbornly I routinely ran work submitted through plagiarism detection software. Students who violated the rules of academic honesty were almost always genuinely surprised to be the subjects of demerits. It was not unusual to receive an essay comprised of a series of plagiarised paragraphs (quite often disjointed) with a general reference tagged to the end of each. “But I gave the references”, they wailed. “But you copied each paragraph word for word”. “But I told you where they came from”. “Why didn’t you use quotation marks?” It was hopeless. I personally blame Google. As soon as this search engine became available on campus, library use was noticeably less while the computer lab became crowded. I myself love Google for all the great services it provides from how to get rid of jiggers under your toenails to the secrets of hing in Indian cookery, but its use by students leads to serious plagiarism. Despite my giving zero for plagiarised work, very few understand academic theft and, therefore, it continues unabated. Unfortunately, my little battles didn’t contribute much to winning the war on that front.

Another issue I am really glad to be leaving behind is basic student laziness regarding academic effort. As I have said here before, Uganda has a rather poor reading culture stemming from the fact that books were / are simply not available so teachers wrote / write notes on the blackboard which students copy and subsequently cram for examinations. That practice is, unfortunately still with us. Students will always want your notes to keep them in their comfort zone. To take notes in class and read about the subject in books is outside that comfort zone. “Just how much of this required reading textbook do I have to read?” “Well, er, all of it. Plus the other five recommended texts if you want a first-class mark”. “But I can’t read all that. Can’t you give us summaries?” Jeepers!

Over the years it has been a lot of hard work with some wonderful successes, but a lot of it was simply hard work with little thanks at the end of the day and much, much less pay than an average plumber (sometimes none at all). Although I must say I have received a fair few out-of-the-blue phone calls from former students thanking me when they got a job / promotion / higher degree / professional award …. . Those calls remain dear to my heart. And I do meet students on the streets of Kampala who always say thanks; “you were tough with us, but fair” seems to be the general consensus of those I taught. My former students are professors, vice chancellors and deputy vice chancellors, registrars, politicians, doctors, policemen and women, teachers, nurses and midwives, administrators, public health practitioners, bankers, development workers, IT specialists, farmers, shopkeepers, and fisherfolk, so my words have travelled far and wide. I hope some of those words have been remembered.

But now I think I have done my bit for tertiary education in Uganda. Twenty-five years and three universities later I am not sorry to retire from it all. It has been a steep learning curve for the most part, but an experience I would not trade for all the fish in Lake Victoria. I am going back to the academic work I started with after a hiatus of a quarter of a century, but I am going back with a wealth of experience that twenty-five years in Ireland could never have afforded me. A huge thanks to all the students who have taught me so much since I arrived in The Pearl of Africa as a naive philosopher hoping to teach for a year, get a tan, travel a bit, and then return to Europe for a tenured appointment. I for one am happy that life doesn’t always give us what we plan for!

And so this is me, back to my roots, sans robes, and loving every minute of it!

Dee Feb18

Blogger who’s not blogging

Woa! Just realised how fast time goes by. I haven’t blogged for more than a year. Shame on me.

Let me start by posting this wonderful poem. I like the work but also I think of someone I know in Kampala who has two magnificent African Grey parrots caged:

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

(Maya Angelou)
The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

 

Creative Solutions and Revealing Names

December 1999

I was wandering around the nice new shiny supermarket in Kampala the other day actually looking for sweet mince to make a few pies when I found myself absently humming along to “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”. What? Then I realised what it was. Yes, christmassy tunes were being played on a continuous loop: commercial Christmas has finally come to Uganda courtesy of the South African supermarket chain. Sure enough, the next aisle revealed tinsel hanging in gaudy inappropriateness, small plastic Christmas trees in abundance, and old-fashioned red, blue, and green expanding decorations. I actually found myself indignant: what on earth do snow and pine trees mean in this land of sunshine and beautiful local oak trees?

But local decorations in many parts of rural Uganda are also strange in that they often consist of twisted toilet paper of the hard green or blue variety. When I first saw TP strung across the door of a new building, later to be cut quite ceremoniously with extreme seriousness, I was horrified. I’ve got used to it now just I got used to the crotched items covering tellies and computers. But I did put my foot down when the church was similarly decorated for a major feast, and quickly removed the TP covering the lectern, much to the dismay of the students who had taken the time to wrap it lovingly in various shades. Thus, the gaudy christmas decorations jarred because they were, quite simply, out of place. In my view, some things work in some cultures and some work in others, with the exception of toilet paper in the church.

Another creative solution to an annoying problem that I now engage in on a regular basis is sticking something sharp into the upper hole of a three-pin electric wall socket. This happens because many of electric and electronic goods sold in Uganda have round European two-pin plugs while the wall sockets have three square pins as in the UK (naturally). Hence the sharp object exercise. It used to scare me but when I saw welders and the like simply sticking the wires themselves into the wall socket, I realised that getting two pins into three wasn’t so dangerous after all.

I have already extolled the various uses of the bicycle and the boda-bodas but the other day I saw a passenger on a motorbike with a wheelbarrow on top of his head – ingenious really. And if you have no broom or brush and need to sweep up, you simply gather a bunch of twigs, twist them together and off you go on your cleaning spree. When you have no credit on your mobile phone, you call the person you want to speak to, let it ring once, and then swiftly end the call. Chances are the other party will phone you back. This is called “beeping”. All of this creativity reminds me of the strange inventiveness of Mr Bean.

The other thing that works here is names, both people’s names and names for businesses. Let me start with business names that no-one batts an eyelid at: “God Cares Butchery”, “Save the Little Ones Primary School”, “Las Vegas Motel” (a wooden shack with a curtain for a door), “Blessing Lodge”, “John and Flora Shopping Emporium” (in a similar state), “Honest Butchers”, “Ave Maria Shopping Complex”, “Divine Providence Nursery School”, “In God We Trust Pork Butchers”, “Lovely Inn”, “Good African Coffee”, “Super Supermarket”, “We Sell Genuine Meat Butchers”, “Cinderella Supermarket”, “Hungry Caterpillar Nursery School”, “Save our Souls Orphanage”, “Holy God Day and Boarding Primary School”, “You’ll Never Drink Alone Bar”, “Delightful Shoppers Paradise”, “Divine Brother Driving School”, “Chinese Paint Nails Beauty Salon”, “Beautiful Shoe Shop”, “Weary Travellers Inn” (in very weary condition), “Stop and Shop Here Shop”, “Phonny Phone Repairs”, “Nice Bakery”, “Deep Enterprises”, “Obama’s Restaurant and Car Wash”, “Biotech Nursery School”, “Hope Clinic”, “God’s Gift Hair Saloon”, “Train Up a Child Nursery and Primary Day and Boarding School” (has to be one of my favourites), “Faithful Dairies Milk Shop”, “Compare General Hardware”, “God’s Grace Domestic Appliances”, “Simple Stationary Suppliers”, “Brave Traders”, “I Feel Like Chicken Tonite Restaurant”, “Friendly Supermarket”, “Three Samuels Primary School”, and finally, Wikiliks Sound and Entertainment”. I could go on (and on and on).

And what about these names for kids: Adolf Hitler Mukasa, Mutebi Ronald Regan, Bill Kato Gates? I also once taught a young man named Grace and another named Blessed. And, just as in the olden days when people in Europe got names such as Brian Rua (red), Alan LeJeune, Charles the Blad, or Pepin the Short, Thomas McTeggart (son of the priest), many names in Uganda mean something. My all-time favourites are: Ssebabi – the ugliest person of all; Tibanyenda – they don’t like me; Maandera – I am tired;  Nvannungi — good sauce; Bakashabaruhanga – they prayed to the god (try saying that when you’ve had a few pints of the black stuff); Turiahikayo – we shall get there; Katuramu – it is there; and the best of all: Atidrizea – I have put my hand in poo. Yikes!

Take the name Kandahar. Nothing strange about that I hear you say, but here it has become a slang word for a woman’s private parts; the man’s is known as a drone. Go figure! A recent debate in Parliament saw an MP refusing to say Kandahar in the House causing much merriment among the members (sorry).

Finally, this is an excerpt from a speech believed to have been given by President Idi Amin (he of Last King of Scotland fame) in the presence of Elizabeth, Queen of England:

“My majesty Mr. Queen Sir, horrible ministers and members of parliament, invented Guests, ladies under gentlemen, before I undress you, let us open the windows for the climate to come inside! I hereby thank you completely Mr. Queen, sir; and also what he has done for me and my fellow Uganda who come with me. We have really eaten very much. And we are fed up completely.” You can read more at: http://www.kenyan-post.com/2012/05/funniest-speech-ever-from-african.html.

Postscript: We now have three spanking new student residences sitting on the hill where the scraggy cows used to live and they look quite splendid. I suppose I should feel honoured that the middle one has been named after me but I don’t think I deserve to have thirty students carrying little key rings around in their pockets with Carabine 12 or Carabine 21 inscribed on them. And yet I am secretly pleased, although I suspect that the minute I leave the place, students will vote to call it Mandela or Ghandi or someone-more-worthy Hall.

Kampala … in more “interesting times”

February 1995

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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