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Life in Uganda

In the beginning

December 1967

These lockdown days give the mind plenty of time to roam, and mine has been roaming a lot, especially in the past. The other day I was reminded of my first trip to Uganda in December 1967; it went as follows.

I came to Uganda, having completed my PhD at Louvain University, all fired up to do some good missionary work in a foreign land (that has now become home). Friends had given me, as a parting gift, a set of golf clubs so that I could take sufficient time off and relax in the open air of nature. I never used the said clubs, and they were a burden to carry through the airport and on further movements! The customs officer at Entebbe airport asked me if I was coming for a holiday, and when I told him I was here as a missionary, he looked at me and simply smiled!

Why I came to Uganda was not a coincidence as I had to do military service in Belgium and opted for civil service in a “developing country”. A Ugandan friend at the university asked me: “why don’t you go to Uganda?” I asked and got permission to go.

So there I was in mid-December 1967 at the old airport of Entebbe with my golf clubs, my small brown suitcase, and mountains of energy to burn. I was supposed to be met at the airport, but nobody was there and so a good samaritan took me to Entebbe Catholic parish where the parish priest, who happened to be a Belgian, offered to help me with a place to stay until I sorted out my future movements in the country. I slept more or less fitfully that first night filled with the noises of Africa.

The next morning I got my first shock when standing at the washbasin. A big lizard, some 10cm long – but I thought this was enormous – crawled up the wall in front of me. I jumped back but the beast was faster than me and ran for its life. That was my first small encounter with African wildlife; there was more, much, much more to come.

My “chauffeur” turned up the next day to pick me up, and told me simply that he had forgotten the airport collection due to a heavy workload! He informed me that we would set off for Mbarara (located in the south west of the country) immediately. It was about 10am and he expected the trip would take us about 5 hours. Having no clue about the distances in Uganda, I thought this was rather long as this would mean I could have crossed the whole of Belgium in the same time. But so be it and off we were to the promised land “Mbarara”.

But then just as there are always obstacles on a golf course, the same was true here on most road trips. At the first roundabout in Kampala, known as the “Clock Tower”, my companion / driver managed to run into a bus of the Uganda Transport Corporation. This meant some time at the Central Police Station to make a statement about the incident. This took a few hours and five hours after departure from Entebbe we were still at the CPS. So much for the urgency to be in Mbarara in the same length of time. Well, we finally set off again round 4pm, and I had plenty of time to admire this beautiful land where I would spend most of my adult life. But then the roads are not always in the best condition and after an hour, the vehicle slowed down and my man informed me that he had a puncture. This could be repaired easily, but first we would have to unload the car to reach the spare wheel and tools. As the car was full of newspapers (it turned out my man was editor of a local newspaper which he was taking back to Mbarara), it took us some time. Some 60 minutes later we were back on the road. I had no idea that round 6.30 pm it would get dark and so my driver decided to stop in Masaka, a town half-way to Mbarara, for supper. He went to some friends and they graciously offered us the left overs of their own meal. But not having eaten anything for the whole day, nor the previous night, anything coming my way was good and received gratefully. After some beers, some chatting and a light sustenance, we set off again. By then it was 9pm and I was wondering how long it would take us to reach this promised place called “Mbarara”. I was duly informed that within one hour and half we would be there. So through the night we drove. As street lights were non existent, I had no other option but to attempt a few moments of sleep. But the road, having a far from smooth surface, prevented me from enjoying these few moments of internal piece and quiet.

However, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, and around midnight my driver informed me that the lights we could see in the far distance were Mbarara! So with renewed hope, I sat upright and waited patiently for the moment I would enter the promised land. This happened another hour later, but we got there I was taken to the headquarters of Mbarara Catholic Diocese, There I was shown a room in the administration building where I could bed down for the night. Let me tell you, I did not sleep a minute: I had no bedsheets, no towels, and plenty of mosquitoes! Luckily that rather frustrating start did not deter me. To be honest there would be many more frustrations and problems along the way, but I still had a lot of energy in me for my first day of African missionary experience!

More to follow!

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