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Life in Uganda

and now …. Runyankole

Well, I had my first night at Bubangizi: a rather sleepless one on my small steel bed and a three inch foam mattress. When round 6am I woke or better got out of my slumber, I realised I had forgotten to bring in some water to shave and have a quick wash. So out I went in the semi dark and filled my little basin and did the needful to appear as presentable as possible.

Breakfast was at 7am and I went to the dining room where I found my two colleagues, the little man and my classmate, already enjoying what was on the table. I was informed by the little man that this morning we would set out on the intricacies of the local language “Runyankole”. Suddenly reality set in, and I prepared myself for this first language encounter by downing my breakfast, which was anything but a five star one (the Blue Band and the coffee did nothing to raise the stars!) I realised I was in for a lot of hard work. The little man asked me what materials I had to study with; proudly I announced that I had a grammar and a dictionary. “What are you going to do with those?” was the return question. “You have to go out and talk to the people, and then check in your grammar and dictionary for what you heard”. What way was this to learn a language?

Anyhow, after this light meal, I was summoned to the office of the little man and with my dictionary and grammar I duly sat opposite him at his desk. “Now tell me what you know about Runyankole” he asked. I had no idea what to answer but said simply “you tell me what I have to do and how I have to do it”. “As I told you, talk to the people and check it out in your grammar and dictionary! I have asked one of my catechists to come and help you. He is waiting for you on the veranda.” That was my first “lesson” with the little man, but at least the practical part was to follow immediately. Festo was indeed waiting for me on the veranda and greeted me profusely in Runyankole; I had only a big smile as my answer. In broken English he told me that he was going to teach me the language the way the people talk it. “You will see it is not that difficult”. I had been told by Roland to have a little notebook and pencil to jot down the words I could “hear” and then find out the meaning. So Festo, in good teacher mode, told me first how to greet people. I must admit that I heard some sounds with various pitches but could not make any sense or meaning out of it. Again he said: “Oraire ota?” which meant “How did you sleep?” I tried to jot this down in phonetical script and repeated it. After some multiple attempts, I managed to get something out which resembled the question very vaguely. The answer to this question, or “greetings” as I learned later, was “Ego”. Now this was easy and I just wondered if there was any link between Runyankole and Latin! But of course I realised quickly this was not possible or certainly a far fetched idea of mine! My teacher went on how to say good bye to someone. It was “oraare gye” or “osiibe gye”, meaning good day and good night. All this took us the most part of one hour and I was happy to have learned some words but at the same time wondering when I would be speaking more. But Festo did not give up on me; he got his Bible out and took a reading from the liturgy of the next Sunday. He showed me the text and told me to practice reading it as much as I could so that next Sunday – three days after having arrived at my bush place – I would be reading in public! So there I was at the end of class one with some serious homework on my hands.

At lunch time the little man asked me how the class went, and I told him I was happy to have heard some sounds that are supposed to be Runyankole. He then asked me to tell him what I had learned and dutifully I took out my little note book and read what I had scribbled down. I tried to read it but the little man stopped me there and then and said: “listen if you cannot learn these simple things faster, how are you going to learn the language?” My friend Peter simply watched and smiled, but did not utter a word in my support. How can you let your friends down in such a way?

The next morning I met Festo who again greeted me, but I could not make anything out of what he said. He smiled and patiently repeated what he had taught me the day before, and to my surprise it started to make sense to my ears! The sounds were no longer just noises but sounds at variant pitches. Was I starting to get the language? The test would be the next Sunday! By Jove, did I practice reading the text I was assigned to read. I took my own Bible to try and understand what I was reading in Runyankole, but no semblance of commonality appeared to me. But the days were moving on and soon, too soon, came Sunday 17 December 1967. I will never forget this day, I stood there in front of a packed Church with a bible in my hand and attempted to read something which was supposed to be the “good news”. I have no idea how I ploughed through the whole thing but I could see heads moving in all directions, some smiling, some wondering, some disapproving. But to make things worse, the little man was standing at the back of the Church. After Mass he came to me and said “good attempt at reading but I doubt people understood anything!.” For next Sunday you will prepare another reading with Festo and then we will see what to do next!

I struggled through the week with my reading and on 24 December 1967 I made my second attempt at reading Runyankole in public. I will not tell you how I fared, but after this event the little man told me flatly: “You do not learn very quickly, I have no time for you any longer. You will have to try other ways.” At that moment what he said on my arrival came flooding into my head: “I did not ask for him”. But good grief, did he think I could master Runyankole in one week and a half? I do know I am rather good at languages but I learned these in a rather more orthodox way! “Tomorrow is Christmas”, he said, “and I hope we will have a nice day. If you wish you can join us in the evening for a game of bridge with some colleagues from a neighbouring parish.” I said I would be delighted to join. It would be one bright point in a rather disappointing week! But in my head I knew that things would have to change, and other ways and means had to be found to learn the language. I resolved to go and see the Bishop and ask for another placement and find someone who could teach me properly.That resolution settled me a little.

And so Christmas Day came and Christmas Day went, with a game of bridge which I was allowed to attend as only four players play the game. What a disappointment! And so it was on 27 December 1967 I took a local bus to Mbarara and went to see the boss. Luck was on my side, and I found him in his office. When I knocked at his office door and was invited in, he looked at me in astonishment and after a minute burst out laughing: “Did the man get rid of you?” What did he mean by that? And then I realised that Roland had told him about our reception at Bubangizi. “Not to worry; let us go to my house and enjoy a cold beer, it is, after all, Christmas time!” So there I was invited to the bishop’s palace, a modest bungalow in the middle of greenery and next to the cathedral. A comfortable house where I met a man I would work with for years to come: brother Karl. He will certainly be the subject of one of my random thoughts.

We had a most pleasant chat and at the end of the best part of one hour, the bishop told me: “As I told you I cannot give you instructions on where to send you as you have not satisfied the requirements for an episcopal placement, that is: language competence. So if you can find a place where you would like to go, be my guest”. This decision was to be one I will never forget, and indeed it marked the rest of my life in Uganda! With this in mind I travelled back to my bush place and in the evening I informed the little man that I would be moving to another place once the bishop had decided where to put me. Now this was twisting the truth slightly, but I could not muster the courage to say that I had asked to be moved. All this for the next time folks, but that evening we did enjoy a cold “Christmas” beer on the veranda!

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