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Life in Uganda

… and on the third day

After my “interview” with the bishop, I knew that my introduction to the world of the “bush” would not be long coming. After breakfast on this third day, the big man Roland told me that we would go in town this morning and do the needed shopping for the move to my new life in the bush. There was some trepidation in my mind about this because I did not have much in the line of possessions, and at that time didn’t even have money to buy anything at all. How on earth was I going to do my shopping and settle my bills? But the big man was reassuring and told me not to worry; the treasury will cover your bill, he told me, and even open an account for me at the diocesan treasury and put some little money on it. So before going to town for shopping, I was first summoned to the office at the end of the corridor, and within a few minutes my name was recorded for posterity in a big ledger; then I was handed the sum of one hundred Uganda shillings in ten shilling notes. This was my first debit note in Uganda! Now this massive financial input represented the equivalent of about fifteen United States Dollars. I looked at the notes and thought to myself: am I rich or am I en route to looting the shops in town!

Once these financial formalities were completed, I got into the diocesan treasury vehicle – an old Volkswagen beetle – and we set off to the town of “Mbarara”. I had no idea how far we would drive or how big the city was. But I soon realised it was not far, about one kilometre, and the town was in fact a single main street surrounded by buildings on both sides, called “Ddukas”. I noticed on the way that there was a police station, a post office with its post boxes, and two banks, yes two: Grindlays and Uganda Commercial Bank, as well as a Caltex petrol station. A really big town! The population was about 20.000. I was told that it was a big town which was the headquarters of the region called Ankole where I had landed. Later, I would get acquainted with Ankole having moved around quite a bit over the years. But today all was new and together we wandered into one shop; it seems it was the biggest and nicest one in town, called “Aziz Virani.” Entering I could smell these smells that seemed to be coming from lands far away. On the counter was an burner where smoke welled up and graced us with a scent I had never before smelled. I fact it was not bad at all. At the counter a nice Ugandan gentleman greeted us and asked what we wished to buy. I should remind you that at the time, by law, a Ugandan had to be in the shop and deal with customers! The owner, Mr Virani (an Indian), was sitting in a back office and came out to greet Roland as they knew one another rather well. I suppose that when you are the finance man of a diocese you keep good relationships with the business world around you! I also learned later that the Indian shop owners spent most of their time in the back of their shops counting the cash which came in! During the time of Amin this would be even more true!
Not having the slightest idea what I needed, I left the talking to the big man who asked for: a Runyankole dictionary, a Runyankole grammar, a plastic basin, two plates, two knives, two forks and two spoons, a plastic mug, an electric torch, two pairs of bedsheets, two towels, some soap and toothpaste and a plastic bucket. On top of that he asked for a small gas stove and a small cooking pot. It seemed that I really was going to the bush / camping, and my whole household equipment was bought within fifteen minutes. He paid for it all and when I asked how I would refund him he simply said do not worry I will debit your account with us! So much for quick finances! Then came the shock: we entered another shop, very small in comparison of what I had seen but packed to the roof with all kinds of hardware stuff. Here he ordered a mattress, 2 inches thick, six feet long and three feet wide. I asked what this was for and he simply told me “you have to sleep somewhere”. Now I was convinced I was going to be setting up camp in a place where the language would be pumped into my small brain. After about half an hour in town, I was informed that I should go pack my suitcase and that we would set off for my new place, Bubangizi, immediately once this was done. And so around ten o’cock on that 13 December 1967 we drove off to “the bush”.

I must say I enjoyed the drive even if it was bumpy and rough: there was no tarmac after about 40 km out of town, but the landscapes we crossed were simply beautiful. I had never expected to see what I did. Great expanses of savannah, then green banana plantations and green hills. All very lush and pleasant to the eye. We drove for about one hour and after some bad patches of road, we arrived at the top of a hill, where three shops stood proud and in the distance a church and a building in red bricks which looked new to me. “We have arrived” said the man and brought the Beetle to a halt in front of the house. Once the dust had settled we stood there, me with my little suitcase in one hand and my golf clubs in the other, Roland with a big smile waiting for someone to turn up. It did not take long before a little man in his early seventies came out and greeted Roland profusely. He looked at me in a way which did not bode well for the future. I introduced myself and so did he.

The conversation between the little man and Roland ran something like this.
Little man: “Welcome Roland. I hope you stay for lunch.”
Roland: “Yes I will be happy to stay.”
Little man: “And who is this golf player you brought with you?”
Roland: “Michel is coming to Bubangizi, where you are asked to teach him the language”.
Little man: “But I did not ask for him to come here”
Roland: “Well he will stay here until you are satisfied with his progress in the knowledge of Runyankole”
Little man: “But I have no room for him to stay and have no time to teach the language as we are preparing for Christmas”
Roland: “Well after lunch I have to drive back to Mbarara”.

A long, somewhat awkward silence followed. And then, out of the blue and from the back of the house, another younger man appeared, and to my greatest surprise it was an old classmate of mine. We had studied in Canada together and then he moved to Ireland where he studied geography. How he had landed here in the bush with a degree in geography was a mystery to me, but I suppose he too was learning the language! But at least I had someone to talk to and reminisce on our past years together. In the coming years we would have loads of experiences together but these will be told another time.

In the meantime we were invited to lunch and after a brief “siesta”, Roland went back to Mbarara, leaving me behind with my little suitcase, my golf clubs and my newly purchased possessions. These did not seem strange to my “hosts”. I timidly asked where I could put these down and was shown to a small store, 3m by 3m, where there was a steel bed and a small table and one chair and a small window with a wooden shutter giving a view of the front of the place, namely the three shops. Now I understood the purpose of the purchases we had done in the morning. So this was the place where I would live for the foreseeable future, until such time the little man was satisfied with my progress in the language! I had no choice but to settle down in this “heremetical” place and find a way to make myself as comfortable as possible. I was told that in the evening, round 6pm, we would have a beer together on the veranda of the house and then have supper. We would discuss, the little man and myself, how we would organize my future here in the “bush”. What brother Black had told me during my first breakfast came back rushing at me: “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.” Well there I was in my cell, unpacking what little possessions I had, making up a bed and displaying my toiletries round the basin. I looked around for a water tap but there was none in sight ,and by the way I could not find any electrical appliance, nor switch nor socket. I learned very quickly that there was no electricity supply, and that candles or any type of parafin lamp would supply the needed light to the place. I realised this was an item which had not been bought in the morning but could be found in one of the nearby shops. So I wandered out and found a few water tanks and in my precious bucket I drew some water. The little man saw me and informed me that water was scarce, so I should not use too much. He was gracious enough to show me a room at the end of the building where a shower was installed and I could use it but there was only cold water. I was grateful for it and vowed I would indulge in a cold shower certainly as soon as my moving in was complete.

Six pm came quickly and the three of us sat at the veranda and enjoyed a cold beer called “Bell”. By God but was this good after such a hectic day! But the joy of the cold beer did not last long as I was informed by the little man that tonight the beer was free but that I was supposed, so as to enjoy further beers, to contribute to the expense of the precious liquid by buying, at regular intervals, a full crate of beer which would be shared by the three of us and eventual visitors. I looked puzzled and with my 100 shillings in my pocket I had no idea how long this fortune would last me if I was to buy a crate of beer at unspecified “regular intervals”. The conversation was rather a monologue as the little man was talking about all he had done in his missionary life, how he had almost become a bishop but that some male jealousy had prevented it, and how he was now in this small place which he had built with his own savings! What could I say except that I admired him! He seemed pleased with my reaction and this made the atmosphere more relaxed for the rest of the evening. Most likely the beer helped in this too! There is no need to tell you that after a light supper and some small talk with my friend, who I shall call Peter here, I went to bed and tried to sleep. My thought was “Oh my God where am I and what is going to happen?” I eventually fell asleep and woke up the next morning at the crack of dawn. What happened after that is another story for later!

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