Life in Uganda

The next day

December 1967

I was finally in Mbarara! And although it was a night of waiting and wondering, when finally around 6am day broke, I could actually see where I was. A big room, some 4 m by 4 m, with a small 80cm wide steel bed, one chair, and a small writing table. There were a few nails in the wall to hang my clothes, and in a corner a very small half round hand washbasin. I was craving for a shower of some kind but where to go? So I wandered down the long corridor of the second floor where I had landed the night before, and found a place which looked like a shower room. I heard water dripping and thought “I found it!” So I walked in – without a towel as there was nothing in the room – and found a cubicle where I heard noise. Suddenly the door opened and out stormed a small man. “I am Black” he said and disappeared. I peeped into the room and found a wet towel and ventured in for a quick shower – after all, a wet towel is better than no towel! Back to my room, which first I missed and entered a store, but finally I found my room, and changed into something more decent to wear than a wet towel.

The next big exercise was to find a place where I could get something to eat. In all logic, I thought an eating place would be on the ground floor. So I descended the staircase and moving on I heard more and more noises and kitchen smells wafting up the stairwell. Finally, I found myself at one end of a wide corridor at the end of which was a large double door. I ventured to it and could hear kitchen-type noises and smells. I knocked and entered, to find myself facing some twelve faces turning around at me, wondering who on earth I was. “We did not expect such a white face walking in”, they seemed to say! At the end of a long table sat a big man; I found out later his name actually was “Grandmaison”. For those not familiar with French the word means “big house”, and really the man was big! He turned out to be the administrator of the place and in charge of finances. Instinctively I moved towards him and shyly greeted him. He looked up from his plate and said ”are you the one who came in last night? It was a bit noisy?” What could I say, as the real noise had come from my “chauffeur” who had had the good idea, at 1.30am to offload his car of all the newspapers he had brought from Kampala. A bit noisy indeed!

In any case, I was invited to sit down and at the end of the table I found a space next to a little man, who I thought I had seen before. With a big smile he greeted me and said “ I am Brother Black”. That was it, the man of the shower! Now this sounded funny to me: he was a White Father Brother called Black! Was he joking or not? I found out later it really was his name and that he was the jack of all trades of the place, especially when it came to plumbing and electricity. Very useful indeed! Opposite him sat another man, a stark face devoid of any smile, who introduced himself as “Louis”. “I am the man of logistics here”, he said and continued with his breakfast ignoring my presence for the remainder of the exercise!

I sat there quietly drinking some light brown stuff they called coffee, with some bread which I found too sweet to my taste, and God knows if I have a sweet tooth. With that there were some hard boiled eggs and margarine, which I would see for the rest of my life in Uganda labelled “Blue Band”. Horrible stuff but what to do if you have no butter? I managed to down a few bits and pieces and even managed to have some sort of conversation with my neighbour Black. He immediately informed me that life in Uganda was not all that pleasant and that I would soon find out for myself about all the hardships I would encounter and be subjected to. But then what could I do but smile and simply say “I will see”. Just a few months later, the man “Black” left Uganda for good – perhaps the hardships proved too much for him!

Suddenly the big man at the table head stood next to me, towering over me, and with a big smile said “come to my office when you have finished your breakfast.” I jumped up immediately and followed him, afraid not to find where this mystery place, “his office”, would be. I will never forget the sight of it. At the end of another corridor, a dark place with a side office and two desks covered with all sorts of papers and files. He let me in and said I am the diocesan bursar and if you need something I will gladly help you. He turned out to be a very nice man and when I learned that he was French Canadian, we found some common ground as I had studied in Canada for four years. Conversation became so much easier and in a fatherly way he told me that he would help me to get acquainted to the place, but first I had to meet the boss of the place: the bishop. He was going to make an appointment for me and advised me to go out for a walk and visit the place and see for myself what kind of environment I would be living in for the foreseeable future. So out a-walking I went and what a pleasant surprise: green lawns, beautiful flowers and trees, and plenty of birds. Where had I really landed: was this the “promised land”? I would discover many more beauties as the years passed, but now I had to find my bearings and not stray too far away lest I not find my way back. Passing in front of a window, which was wide open, I heard a shout form inside “Michel can you come in”. It was the man “Grandmaison”, called Roland, who informed me that the bishop would meet me immediately. For making an appointment this was done in a record time I wondered what magic he had used. I managed to get back to his office without getting lost and together we walked to the boss’s office. Now you may have ideas of what appearance a bishop has, but in my case I was expecting someone with an stiff upper lip and oblivious to smile and charm. I was totally put off guard when we met as he greeted me in French and said “Je suis Jean Marie Ogez” He told me that he happened to be the bishop of this place but came originally from Zambia. “Welcome to Africa and especially Mbarara diocese. I heard about your first day in Uganda, and I am sorry but the guy who picked you up is “somewhat” special. As he was going to Kampala, I thought it was easier to ask him to pick you up than to send a special car to do so. I hope the trip was good?” Politely I nodded yes and thanked him for sending someone to pick me up! Today I might not be quite so kind, and might very well have ticked off my “chauffeur” for being late . But then when you are young and arrive at a place you have been looking for, even not knowing what it looked like, you accept quite a lot.

I wanted to be civil with the bishop, and had noticed a violin in the corner of his office. I asked him if he played the violin himself, I should have known of course, and he said flatly “yes”. Being French I was surprised at his cool approach to things. Maybe his years in Zambia had attached to him some British way of being! He went straight to the point as he had a lot of work and could not settle into a long conversation. But this would come later once we got to know one another better. I quote here verbatim what I can recall of his monologue. “You have come to Uganda. You are welcome. I have no authority over you as you first have to learn the language and it has been decided, by the powers that be, that you will go to a small bush parish, new in construction, called Bubangizi. The parish priest there, called Father Mischler, will teach you “Runyankole” and once he is satisfied about your knowledge of the language, he will let me know and you will fall under my jurisdiction and we will then see what we do with you. Roland, here present, will help you to buy the needed things for you to settle down in the place you are going to and he will take you there. I hope you will have an enjoyable time in Bubangizi.” Amen! The whole encounter with the bishop lasted exactly six minutes. I knew I was going to go to the “Bush” as they say here; I knew I would be there not speaking a word of the local language for some time, and I knew the learning experience would not be easy. This experience I will never forget, and I will summarize it in the next blogpost. But one thing was for sure: life was certainly going to be interesting!

More to follow soon.

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