March 1994 Night Noises
Nine months down the line and I’m still not entirely used to the noise of the African night: it truly is different from anything else you have ever heard. The few owl hoots and crickets we are familiar with in the northern hemisphere are nothing compared to the night chorus of the southern hemisphere. It starts just before the sun has slipped away and continues unabated through most of the early part of the night. Crickets start first, then the flogs down in the swamp and in the dog’s bath at the bottom of the garden join in, and then all sorts of insects contribute their own strange noises intermittently until it all becomes a glorious symphony.
The flogs, of course, come in different voices: sopranos, tenors, and bases, all with different songs. Flogs, by the way, are really frogs as you’ve probably guessed, but in Uganda, as in some of the Far Eastern countries, rs and ls get confused in English. Before Christmas I was in the staff club on a no-current night having my Special by paraffin lamp, when I felt something cold and slimy land on my leg. I’m not normally that squeamish but the snake episode had taught me not to take anything for granted. My scream brought Sefus the barman to my side and he promptly dropped to the ground to peer under the table. Sadly, his machismo was not going to be measured: “It’s only a flog, Dee”, he said rather despondently. So ‘flogs’ they have been ever since.
The other night I got to bed quite late on account of having been invited by the Irish Consul to a bit of a do in Kampala to celebrate St Patrick’s Day. I’m usually in bed at nine-o-clock – I find that I can’t keep my eyes open by then even though I was very much a night owl in Ireland (someone told me that the altitude might have something to do with it), so one in the morning was a bit unusual. I was just dropping off to the background melody of bits of Danny Boy endlessly replaying itself in the hard drive, when I was awakened by the most awful wailing piercing the cricket-filled night. Out of bed and out on the balcony to see what was up. Thankfully Pea Brain was still in her run and had not been attacked by strange wild night creatures, but she was obviously unsettled by the racket. It seemed to be coming from the direction of the hospital, and as I listened I began to discern words in the wailing. It scared me to death listening to that keening in the depths of the night and it reminded me of the old stories about banshees wailing about the place when somebody was about to die. I found out the next day that someone did, in fact, die during the night in the hospital. And when someone dies, the mother/daughter/sister/cousin begins the grieving process very vocally so that everyone knows that she has lost a dear one. This woman lost a child and her keening lasted for the good part of thirty minutes. It was chillingly haunting.
A less sad night crier is the heron who slowly climbs up a scale about five or six notes and then glides back down again until it has reached the original note. And when you hear that shrieking cry at four in the morning, you want to crawl deeper under your sheets for protection against all the beasties that might be roaming around in the night. The heron’s friend, the owl, is something else entirely: this particular species of owl makes the most amazingly deep pig-like noises, and I honestly believed that the dog was in serious danger from wild boars roaming around at night until the Farm Manager enlightened me.
Then there are the bats: big ones, small ones, and medium-sized ones. Their squeaky radar sounds are a familiar part of the African night, and this campus alone must be home to a million times more bats than exist in the whole of Ireland. There is a part of Kampala called Bat Valley and I can only speculate that the majority of its inhabitants have tiny eyes and legs on wings. If you sit by our staff club at twilight, you will see thousands of them exiting from under the roof off to begin their nightly search for food. It’s an ariel version of the migration of the wildebeest.
The other creatures that take off at dusk in search for food are perhaps highest in the food chain, and among all the noises of the African night, their high-pitched hummings are noises that you definitely do not want to hear. Just as you snuggle down under the sheet and your hard drive is falling over for the day, nine times out of ten one of these irritating little beasties will start to sing soprano into your ear. Waaagh! A mosquito! You simply can’t sleep with a mosquito in the room. Even if you cover yourself from head to toe, they will find a way to bite you through the sheet or on the top of your head– they are not terribly fussy how they get their grub.
At first, I wasn’t too concerned about these irritating night-time bites, but as I began to read more about Uganda, I came to realise that these innocent-looking little insects are seriously deadly. The number of children who die needlessly each year from malaria is shocking. The number of adults who die needlessly each year from malaria is equally shocking. The female amopheles mosquito is the one to watch out for: she is very small but also extremely cunning, and her hiding places can be hard to find. Most of the mosquitos in Uganda seem to be resistant to Chloroquine, the commonly-available (and relatively cheap) prophylaxis – and, for many people, treatment. Therefore, if you are planning to stay in the tropics for a long time, you might be better to stop taking the pills altogether. I stopped taking Lariam after two weeks because they gave me really bad nightmares and I found myself swaying in the middle of complicated musings about ancient Greek ethics. The nightmares stopped but the paranoia set in and I used to get out of bed almost every night hunting for these evil little beasties until someone told me to go and buy a net. An amazingly simple solution to a nasty problem! You can lie inside your net with a great big happy smile on your face (and, if you are feeling naughty, a two-finger salute at the ready) while madame mossie sings to her heart’s content because she isn’t going to suck any blood out of you. Guaranteed a good night’s sleep.
But just as the mosquitos have decided that they are fed up with you and your net, and the bats are making their weary way home to their hanging-upside-down-places, the dawn noises begin. And they are much, much louder than the night noises in a way. I don’t think I have set my alarm clock since I arrived last June. If you can sleep through numerous cocks proclaiming their territories, the starlings fighting with one another in voices that could well have been the inspiration for the Monty Python boys pretending to be girls, the Gray Plantain Eaters who cackle madly at each other every time they move to another branch, and the numerous other birdies who have to clear the sleep out of their voice boxes as soon as they wake up, then you are either unconscious or deaf. I’ve tried the spongy airline ear plugs on Saturdays when I want a bit of a lie in, but they don’t do a lot in the way of assisting quiet sleep. But all in all, it is a lovely way to waken up – much better than the wind-up clock I used to put in a saucepan in the old, cold days.