Category Archives: Life in the Bush

Remembering Beginnings Part II

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

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


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

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

Snakes on The Line

Last night there was a medium-sized snake up the Palm Nut tree. The dogs went ballistic. The bird were in a frenzy. Quite so when a slithery thing is in the vicinity of your abode. I was simply curious, albeit with a mild frisson of anxiety when I though of the critter falling out of the palm onto a barking pooch. And it reminded me of the first time I met a snake as a young idealistic expat with no snake experience. The following incident happened in October 1993.

*****

About four weeks ago, just the day after I returned from a shopping trip to Ireland (which was lovely I must say), I met a snake for the very first time but was too stupid to make a big deal of it at the time. I have since learned that you treat snakes with a great deal of respect, and you certainly don’t do what I did. You do, in fact, make a very big deal out of it. In this corner of the world most people treat snakes according to the succinct Buddhist advice: “If you meet the Buddha kill him”. So if you happen to meet a snake on the Uganda Equator I have put together the following plan for immediate implementation.

1. Upon seeing this scary marvel of the wild back away – slowly or fast doesn’t matter but back away, even without reverse lights.
2. Open your mouth and yell loudly. This will ensure that people from both and near and far (after all everyone loves a break from work, especially if it involves an element of danger and fear – and perhaps machismo) will immediately run to your assistance.
3. Keep your eyes open and watch carefully while the brave men you have summoned examine the snake and then rush around madly to find sticks and stones.
4. Take the credit for finding the snake by telling everyone who has arrived to watch how scared you were when you first saw the unfortunate creature.
5. Close your eyes once more as the assembled men fling sticks and stones at the writhing creature making sure you are not targeted in the process.
6. Open your eyes when the victorious cry has gone up and press forward with the rest of the crowd to make sure the snake really is dead.
7. Hang around a bit longer recounting the story of the discovery and kill for all those arriving for the postmortem.
8 For the next few days tell everyone you meet how you made the grisly discovery, show them how big it was the way fishermen always do, and recount in embellished detail how it was killed.
This next point on The Plan is optional and only holds for really big snakes:
9. Organise mini guided tours to the spot where the snake was found and killed while recounting the story again to anyone willing to listen.

This is a good plan – not good for the snake, of course, and it will not be recommended by any wildlife organization – but it is a good plan. I did not do any of the above. What I did was stupid – I did get a lot of conversational mileage out of it since, but it was still stupid. This is how it went.

On a certain Tuesday I went home to make myself a light lunch and was humming happily as I thought of the wonderful lectures I would be able to write with the newly-acquired books (Philosophy 101 was on course after all despite the container heist when all my books were looted in Kenya), periodically relived various moments of the retail therapy, and wondered when I would use the smoked salmon sitting proudly on a prominent shelf in the fridge. The frothy eggs sizzled as they hit the oil in the first stage of being transformed into a tasty omelette, and they continued sizzling long past the stage when said sizzling should have fizzled out. The happy humming stopped while I wondered what kind of marvellous Ugandan eggs made so much noise.

As I looked under the table holding the small two-ring gas cooker looking for the source of a possible gas leak, I came face-to-fang with a huge (not fisherman huge but really huge) brown snake angrily hissing at me for daring to disturb its cool peaceful sleep with egg noises and humming. I calmly turned off the gas and crouched down to get a closer look at it. There it was, coiled in the corner: a quite beautiful snake but it was one annoyed snake and was letting me know it.

“What to do? Yes, of course Dee, dance for it. For what, the snake? Yeah, why not?” Why not indeed? Ten years earlier while walking in a forest in Southern Germany a friend had told me that snakes don’t like noise, or rather don’t like vibrations, and will slither away if they don’t like the approaching ambience. So there was nothing for it but to prance around the kitchen making incredibly loud stomping noises with my feet.
This manoeuvre is not in The Plan for the simple reason that it doesn’t work. What it does is make the snake even more angry and frightened, so frightened that it will start attack proceedings. For a snake this entails aggressive head raising and even louder sizzling while advancing slowly and menacingly towards the dancer. At this point I realised that danger was approaching and made a hastily ungracious escape from the kitchen. When the snake had finally stopped sizzling I crept back into the kitchen just in time to see my new acquaintance slither calmly through a frighteningly large gap, previously unnoticed, between the bottom of the back door and the floor, and into the safety of the jungle of my exotic back garden. I later revised this opinion of tropical landscaping and had the grass cutters in so that similar sizzlers couldn’t find cool refuge so close to my cooking table. I also rolled up some newspapers and taped them to the bottom of the door in case my friend wanted another performance of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Then I ate my lunch with even more appetite because of the unexpected exercise.

As I said, I didn’t know then what I know now, and a week later during a lull in a conversation I mentioned my pre-lunch dance routine to some colleagues. The following conversation should be read aloud quickly and with raised decibels.
“You did what?”
“What size was it?”
“What colour was it?”
“Did it have a flat head?”
“What were its markings like?”
“You really did that? God!”
“You’re mad! You danced at a Puff Adder! Dee, that thing is really dangerous. It could have bitten you because you cornered it.”
“But St Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland,” I protested.
“He what? Who?”
“St Patrick. He drove them all away so we Irish people have no training in snake-related behaviour.”
That excuse just didn’t justify my actions. They all looked at me with strange expressions: this mzungu (white person) is nuts their faces said. She is stupid their raised eyebrows said. But she may well be just a little bit brave their wide eyes said, because we would have followed The Plan.

In the time since then I have surprisingly made the acquaintance of a few more snakes, and while I haven’t quite followed The Plan, I haven’t done any ballet for them either. I now have a few theories about snakes.

1. You only see them if you want to see them. Some colleagues who have been in Africa for a lot longer have seen fewer snakes than I have.
2. Someone up there is making sure that the snake-deprived Irish abroad complete their educational experiences by allowing them to encounter more than their fair share of Eden’s bad guys.
3. Snakes only appear to those who believe in them — this theory works much in the same way as Douglas Adams’s theory about extra-terrestrials in strange flying crafts manifesting themselves to the gullible.

I am, however, quite proud of my actions on that long-ago Tuesday because the snake didn’t die. “I saved a snake life”, I often think to myself smugly. It didn’t get its head bashed in and die in agony all because of some wise advice given freely while stomping through the knee-deep leaves of a damp Bavarian forest floor.