Life in Uganda

Runyankole … Part 2

So there I was after a dull Christmas in 1967 with a blank offer from the Bishop to choose a place where to go. I would do this as soon as an opportunity came up and this, in fact, happened mid-January 1968 when I attended a meeting in Mbarara with colleagues from the diocese. I met new faces and some came across to me as more friendly than others, so I told them my story. There is no need to say that many chuckled at my story and one of them, Edgar, a Canadian, told me “Why don’t you come to Ibanda?” I had no idea where Ibanda was but the friendliness of the guy convinced me to give it a go. As the boss was at the meeting, I told him my plan; his answer: “When you feel like it, you move”. Oh, if everything in life was so simple.

As we arranged for my move, Edgar told me that he could send someone to pick me up the following week in Mbarara. And so the next week found me sitting in the car of another Canadian, Richard, and with my little suitcase, my golf clubs, and lots of smiles. We were on the road to Ibanda. On the way, Richard explained lots of things, most of which I forgot, but looking back now, Ibanda became the place which took up an enormous space in my heart. In the years that followed, the actual place helped me really build up a love for the country and its people.

On arriving at Ibanda, I was met by Edgar, who was the parish priest, together with another young man, German by birth, called Franz. They were the team of the parish. My surprise would grow even more when I was told there were more good guys around. So I was told that there was a Teachers’ Training college where three White Fathers worked, a Catechist school with another two, a secondary school with five Canadian Brothers, and a dispensary with three Irish sisters. Now this was a big difference with my bush place in Bubangizi. I had landed in a new world and was determined to maximize my stay here, and try to master Runyankole as quickly as possible. By the way I never received a letter from the Bishop telling me I was appointed to a definite place; he just told me – after two months – that he was satisfied with my performance and could stay there if I so wished. I was quick to accept this generous offer. I would stay there for three years!

But I was there to study the language and a colleague from the Teachers’ Training college, a good Irishman called Tim, offered to take me under his wing and teach me the intricacies of the language. He was a born teacher, and day after day he coached me into the entrails of the language with charts, grammar notes, vocabulary and many other paraphernalia. But it paid off and slowly I started getting the hang of it. I was not dumped into a crowd to read a text I did not understand but was simply told to go out and try my “tongue” with some kids I might meet. Now this really paid off, as kids are eager to share their knowledge without fear, and doing so with a big white man was for them a kind of wonderful achievement. They did not mind if I made mistakes and they were happy to remind me of the correct version of things. They could laugh at my mistakes, and did so without any fear of reprisals on my part. I enjoyed it, and day after day, once I had gone through my classes with Tim, I met my little friends and rather soon (after two weeks) I could say a few words which made sense. This was the point where I realised that it was possible to master this intricate Bantu language. It would take me a much longer time to become fluent, but here I must admit what the little man had told me, “talk to the people”, was in fact the key to the knowledge of the language. And talk to the people I certainly did. At this point, lest you think I speak the language of the country, I should remind you that there are more than forty-two recognised languages in Uganda, Runyankole being one only!

One day Edgar told me: “I want you to go into the bush for five days and visit families and get more acquainted with the language, customs, and habits”. But my question was: “How do I get there?” as I had no transport. So again good fortune came across my way and Edgar told me “You have to buy yourself a car, otherwise you are totally useless here.” Now this was a challenge on many levels, but I was guided to a garage in Mbarara, which I got to using public transport. Negotiations went smoothly with the Indian garage owner. I was told he would give a huge discount and I believed him of course, not realising that the discount was re-calculated in the final prize of the car. Within 24 hours I had purchased a small Peugeot 204 which was delivered in Ibanda the next day. How I paid for it I have no idea but my debit account in Mbarara shot up by a fair amount! But then, I was still naïve enough to think things would work out for the best! So two days later, being the owner of a new car, I packed the gear which I had bought in Mbarara, gas stove, pot, plate, cutlery and a mug, as well as my little mattress and a sleeping bag, into the boot of my car. Roland had indeed been right to tell me to buy all this!

Together with the head catechist of the parish we drove to a place named Kazo. Now I have never seen such a place: flat green savannah land and cows galore, at least a hundred cows per person! What I learned soon after is that I was going to the land of Kaguta, the father of Museveni, who would appear on the Ugandan scene many years later. After one hour’s drive we arrived at a small place with three grass huts. The people had awaited my arrival – how they knew it I have no idea – and once I had greeted everyone, (boy, was I proud to have done this on my own!), we were assigned one hut each as our residence for the week. The bathroom was in the open behind a grass partition. From there onwards things went smoothly and I walked my legs off in the real bush, talking to people, visiting their places, and learning so much about the culture and customs. The food they cooked for me was really good and luckily had I brought with me my cutlery as most people simply eat with their hands! This really was a brilliant experience never to be forgotten.

After my five days, exhausted but happy, I drove back to Ibanda and just like a kid I could not stop telling everyone about my adventures. Tim was happy to listen to my stories, and over and over again he switched to Runyankole and I could understand and answer him! He would continue to coach me for the coming months with two sessions a week. This does not mean I knew the language at the end of the two months, but the ice was broken and over the years I improved my fluency in Runyankole. I must admit that even after fifty years I have no problem to switch to this beautiful language. So much for my initiation to Runyankole: it was not easy but it paid off!

These were the early days of my Uganda journey; much, much more was ahead of me, some of it great, some of it good, and some of it not-so-good (and parts downright awful), but I had made a start. In the next stories, I will pick out the main threads of my story. I hope you will enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy remembering them!

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