Spotted yesterday evening on the tedious drive from Entebbe to Kampala: “Dive Inn” – not a mis-spelling but the unfortunate name of a local “lodge” in one of the shanty-like suburbs on a dirt road near Kampala. You wouldn’t dive in, not in a million years, except you were a client needing a mattress for an hour or two of a lonely evening. After the affluence of Johannesburg (admittedly I had been holed up in an up-market hotel), Kampala seemed dingy, tired, and down at heel. Three hours it took to cover the forty-odd kilometres from airport to our capital city. And when you are recovering from a bad bout of food poisoning, three hours is a mite too long to be away from the big white telephone.
A word of advice? Never get sick in a classy hotel in South Africa. Never! Faint requests to the Front Desk for medical assistance result in a brisk visit from a house-call doctor who sizes you up in about two minutes flat, then quickly dispenses the necessary medications to get you up and running again. Needle in the rump, potions against the dreaded runs, white pills for bacteria, and green pills for pain. He was very kind and sympathetic; he even emptied the rehydration salts into a glass and poured water on them. Great, I hear you say, wonderful service. Yes indeed, wonderful service. Until you get the bill. Well I didn’t actually get the bill because I was on the great white telephone, but the lady at reception got it and presented it to me upon check out. The light nearly left my eyes. Total due to him for about four minutes with me, three minutes to do his sums, whatever time it took to get him there, and the medications: 280 US dollars (that’s about £220). Afterwards I did a quick calculation on the medical costs and I could have bought this:
for around the same price.
I also found out that this sum was slightly more than the monthly salary of the maid who was assigned to the rooms on my floor. “We blacks don’t love each other”, she told me gravely, “and we don’t get paid enough money either,” she added rather too quickly. “Three thousand Rand a month and I pay one thousand for transport”. Talk about adding to my misery! Since I didn’t actually have any Rand or other useful currency, I gave her some clothes. And because she couldn’t leave the hotel with them, I had to write a note and sign it saying I had gifted them to her. I was aware that she was tapping me for “odds” as they would say in Belfast, but was too sick to care.
An official porter at O.R. Tambo airport, the only other service person I really interacted with, also tapped me without shame and with a mouthful of lies. He was polite, he showed me where the self-check-in was, and he guided me to the security gate, all the way proudly announcing his faith in Jesus Christ and how he spent his days praying and helping people for the love of his Maker, oh, and yes, how the airport authorities did not pay him for his work even though he had a security pass around his neck and a bunch of keys dangling from his belt. Again, because of the no-Rand situation which I explained, I offered to pray for him very specially before I went to bed. “Haven’t you got any Uganda money?” I did dig out a twenty thousand shilling note and most ungenerously offered it to him. “I don’t know if I can change that”, says he despondently, “what’s it worth?” I can’t repeat my answer. I know that people hustle all over the world – Uganda is probably best at it – but it left a rather sour taste in my mouth on top of the already sour taste that had accumulated there.
All in all, travelling on a Wednesday, getting sick on a Thursday, spending Friday in bed, and returning home on a Saturday leaves one rather exhausted in body if not in spirit. And so I want to leave you with a poem I re-read yesterday for the first time in ages. I wish I could evoke the mundane journey from Entebbe to Kampala with such mastery, but then I am not a wordsmith, activist, and brave tearer-up of green cards like Wole Soyinka.
IN THE SMALL HOURS
Blue diaphane, tobacco smoke
Serpentine on wet film and wood glaze,
Mutes chrome, wreathes velvet drapes,
Dims the cave of mirrors. Ghost fingers
Comb seaweed hair, stroke aquamarine veins
Of marooned mariners, captives
Of Circe’s sultry notes. The barman
Dispenses igneous potions ?
Somnabulist, the band plays on.
Cocktail mixer, silvery fish
Dances for limpet clients.
Applause is steeped in lassitude,
Tangled in webs of lovers’ whispers
And artful eyelash of the androgynous.
The hovering notes caress the night
Mellowed deep indigo still they play.
Departures linger. Absences do not
Deplete the tavern. They hang over the haze
As exhalations from receded shores. Soon,
Night repossesses the silence, but till dawn
The notes hold sway, smoky
Epiphanies, possessive of the hours.
This music’s plaint forgives, redeems
The deafness of the world. Night turns
Homewards, sheathed in notes of solace, pleats
The broken silence of the heart.