Category Archives: Life in Uganda

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.

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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

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.