Category Archives: Life in Uganda

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

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Goodbye Lady

February 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloody Awful

April 2001

Having been invited to Holland to give a lecture at a very generous university where two of my students are now studying for their doctorates, I was excited: up at five in the morning, bags packed and ready to go. Check in was at seven thirty so all was well – in fact, all manner of things were well. Too well as it turned out. About thirty kilometres from Kampala the radio latched onto a signal and I caught the tail-end of an announcement, something along the lines of:
“Bloody Awful regrets …”.
“What do they mean?” I said aloud. “Bloody Awful regrets what?
Ten minutes later the smug announcer was back telling all Bloody Awful passengers to phone blah, blah, blah. But since I was out of a network area I couldn’t phone anywhere. Twenty kilometres down the road and at last I had network. Bloody Awful Communication Centre Person was polite but all my impassioned bargaining for an Entebbe-Nairobi-Amsterdam flight fell on deaf ears. I pleaded, I coaxed, I bullied, I put on my best telephone voice (the one that scares the dog), but no deal.
“What’s the problem”, I asked rather icily.
“The late arrival of the inbound aircraft, madam”, Polite Communications Centre Person replies.
“Can’t they get another one?”
“It’s not quite that simple madam”.
“But I have to be in Amsterdam this evening”.
“Yes madam, but the outgoing flight to London will only leave tonight at 23.40″.
“23.40? That’s twenty-to-twelve! But it can’t. I have to be …”
“Yes madam, I know, madam. It can’t be helped, madam”.
Yes, it bloody well can, madam thought. They could call up another plane and get us to London as paid for. How is madam going to give a lecture and start talks about talks just off the red eye to London?

Holland was sympathetic and I actually got a fair bit of work done in the office before venturing out again to try for Entebbe at 7.00pm, sorry 19.00 hours. Crisp new envelopes with the Bloody Awful logo were distributed along the check-in line because the Airport Duty Manager had to eat humble pie. “I regret”, he wrote, “that we let you down on this occasion, but I very much hope that we soon have the chance to restore your confidence in our service”. Harrump!

My spirits lifted a little when I read: If you have onward travel, please visit the Flight Connection Desk on arrival at London Heathrow, where one of our team will be able to assist you. Great, I thought, at least the Heathrow-Schiphol flight will be ok. Flight Connection Desk person at Heathrow assured me that all was in order and sent me on my way to another Connection Desk Person about three miles away. Flight Connection Desk Person there blithely told me that there was no early flight to Schiphol. I knew he had to be wrong and started to check all the gates in the vicinity until I found mine with about 10 minutes to spare before the flight left. Whew, at least I’ll get in with a few hours to freshen up and re-read my lecture notes before lunch with the nice university people.

Ha! Ha, ha, ha! Murphy and the gods were having fun today and they weren’t finished with me yet because my luggage hadn’t made it onto the Schiphol flight at Heathrow. Spent an hour filling in the forms and trying to describe my bag to the Lost Luggage Girl who, to give her her due, didn’t seem to mind that I was getting upset in English rather than in Dutch. Friends were waving wildly through a huge plate glass window and I was tempted to tell Bloody Awful that they could keep my clothes, that they weren’t up to much anyway and weren’t worth waiting for. But I didn’t because after all, they were all I had. But I should have told them to sod off because they couldn’t deliver my lost bag until the next day so ended up agreeing to collect it on departure from Schiphol.

I won’t tell you how I felt giving a lecture and having talks about talks in the same suit I travelled in. I couldn’t. It was too horrible. Luckily I have always followed my mothers advice to carry a spare pair of knickers and a toothbrush in my hand luggage. But I must be a real wimp because I ended up thanking my lucky stars that I hadn’t put my lecture notes in my suitcase!

At this point in my story I would like to say something along the lines of “and it all got better and better from that time on”. But I can’t because it didn’t. The next morning I asked at check in for a seat near the exit because I had to get to terminal 1 from terminal 4 in a short space of time for my connecting flight to Belfast. “Of course, madam. No problem, madam.” I thanked the girl profusely, bestowed my most gracious smile upon her, and made my weary way to the gate where I sat down to check through my ticket, passport, money, boarding card – you know the way you do. Waaaaah! I said “near the exit”, not “rear exit”: she had given me 34D! I won’t be able to tell you what I thought at that moment because such language is unbecoming for a lady. I wished I could un-bestow my most gracious smile from her. I did make it off the flight when it landed although the little old lady in the seat in front of me nearly made it a lot further than the front exit, if you get my drift.

In Belfast International (ah, home, sweet home) the luggage made it but the car hire company guy didn’t! I’ve already explained that Africa teaches you patience but it doesn’t teach that much. I cried at that point but I did finally make it back to Donegal that very day, and after a pint of the Blackness, all manner of things were very much well again.

Since I was a lot more savvy about travelling with Bloody Awful, I decided to re-confirm my flights back to Uganda at their Belfast office. A young girl with a squeaky voice told me that Bloody Awful didn’t have a policy of re-confirming flights but I could book my seat from Heathrow to Entebbe if I wanted. I wanted and got 21A. I also asked about the extra luggage: the shoes collected for the kids in the local orphanage and she ticked that into the computer too: “such a good cause, mrs”, said Squeaky, “no problem, mrs”. Gracious smile was once again bestowed. Mrs should have been just a little bit suspicious that it was all that easy but she wasn’t. More fool her because Murphy and his mates had just awakened to the fact that Dee was en route again: “hey lads, want a bit more fun?”

At the Flight Connections Centre in Terminal 1, I paused to check again, paranoid maybe but best to make sure, you know, after all that had happened on the way out. I announced to Smiling FCC Lady that I had seat 21A. She checked out my ticket, checked out my face, checked the information on her computer, wiped the smile from her own face, and promptly checked in with her boss to confide that strange woman from Belfast flight claims to have seat 21A on Entebbe flight when, in fact, flight has been over-booked and strange woman is actually on standby. What should she do? All this was reported in muted tones, some of it in code, but I can lip read and I can decipher code along with the best of them, although Dan Brown’s guy would beat me hands down any day.

Tight-lipped FCC Lady was then subjected to a potted summary of my Bloody Awful travels to date and with pursed lips politely asked me to have a seat while she sorted things out. She did more than sort things out: she gave me a Business Class seat (Yippee! I went in my head) for which she also got bestowed with my MG, although not too effusive, smile. Unfortunately, I fell asleep twenty minutes into Harry Potter but that seat was just too good to waste watching a video on.

The end of this story just couldn’t be good. While the flight arrived on time and my luggage was one of the first onto the snazzy new conveyer belt in a newly-restored, brightly-lit Entebbe arrivals hall, the extra luggage with the orphans’ shoes didn’t make it from London. And while I was struggling through the crowd to get to my bag, the light nearly left my eyes as a huge doggie started jumping over my cases sniffing wildly. Yikes! There goes my smoked salmon and my lovely fresh Ardennes pate. But apparently sniffer doggies are not interested in expensive smuggled foodstuffs – they are looking for much harder stuff, and thankfully my addictions don’t go that far. My loot was safe – a bit squashed, but safe nonetheless. The end of this particular journey came three days later when the shoes came in and had to be duly signed for and collected (a two-hundred km round trip). Result: Bloody Awful Airways has never been given the chance to restore my confidence in their service. Maybe I’ll have to use them again someday but by that time I hope I’ll have saved up enough money to get a black market passport under an assumed name after all the abuse I gave them.

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.

Thunder and Lightening

September 1995

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kampala … in more “interesting times”

February 1995

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kampala on a Sunny Afternoon ….

August 1995

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

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

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

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