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Life in Uganda

Parish life … Part 1

You will remember that in 1968 the bishop had told me to choose the place I wanted to go to. By a stroke of luck I landed in Ibanda Parish. From January 1968 until June 1974 I would work in three parishes: Ibanda, Rwera, and Mushanga, where I would have a chance to use and enjoy some of the talents the Good Lord had given me.

Ibanda Parish

The place is located some 50 miles to the north of Mbarara. When you speak of Parish, we should not compare it to anything we know in Europe. Ibanda is a long strip of land some 56km long and 20km wide. So plenty of space to move around and enjoy utter freedom. And by the way, at the end of the parish you reach Kaguta land, the land of the family of President Museveni! The residence of the parish was situated at the end of the road coming from Mbarara before this road split into two, one part going further north and passing through Ibanda Trading Centre, the other turning slightly to the east. In fact, the place where the parish is located is called “Kagongo” or “the little hill”, referring to the hill behind the parish residence in the middle of lush land and surroundings. That is where we installed the water system … remember?

When you arrive the first thing you see at the crossing point is a sign post with a series of arrows indicating various places where humans have settled. To the right Ibanda Teacher-Training College and Kagongo Parish, to the left Ibanda Senior Secondary School, and straight ahead Ibanda Hospital (I will write another blog about this last place at a later time). So, up the small hill you go until you get to the parish residence, an old building dating back to the 1930s, built in the shape of a T-bar. Two small wings on either side comprising four rooms, each being bedroom and office for one resident. A central building housed another two bedrooms, a large sitting room, and a visitors’ reception room. The central part – having a covered veranda, front and back – is where each evening a cold beer could be sipped in peace and quiet, really a very praise-worthy habit which keeps the spirits high. Not bad as living conditions! Behind this main building another building comprised a kitchen, a dining room, a store, and a chicken house. On one side of this building there was a vegetable garden, and on the other side a small coffee plantation. Behind all this was a large banana plantation which provided all the basic foods one needed: banana trees (both vegetable and sweet) interspersed with paw paw trees and a few citrus trees – of course one needs lemons if a G&T is to be enjoyed! This is the layout of most parishes as I have known them in Ankole, a general plan that must have been adopted at the start of the twentieth century, and passed on from generation to generation. One thing has to be said to the credit of the founders, these buildings were cool inside and practical in their layout.

So here I was and the man responsible assigned me to one of the side wings where I had a bedroom / office. This single-room arrangement was simply because there were already four inhabitants in the place, and all rooms were occupied. So the latest arrival just had to be satisfied with a single room! I would enjoy the use of the other room later once my younger colleague moved to another parish. Oh my oh my, what a luxury when you come from the bush where I had lived in a store! I actually had running water in the room plus electricity, at least at certain times of the day, from 7pm to 10pm, supplied by the Teacher-Training College. I had at my disposal a small bed: 1.80m by 80 cm – a bit small for someone of my size, but this problem would be solved soon thanks to the good services of a neighbour who lived in the next parish. As he was American and almost 2 m tall, he had solved his problem simply by having a bed made to his size: long and large enough to accommodate his rather voluminous body. He arranged for a similar bed to be fabricated in his carpentry shop and I soon had night-time luxury with a six inch mattress on top of the wooden base. I also had a small wardrobe and table with an easy chair and an office chair, well at least this is what they called it: small hard wooden chair where your bottom did not endure very long. But at last I had a quiet place and could continue with my study of the local language! A happy man had settled down!

I must say that the work in the parish was well divided and each week the boss of the place, a good Canadian, got all five of us together and we made an evaluation of the week and planned the week to come. For me, my contribution was a progress report on my linguistic travels. In fact they progressed well and after some two months, the boss called me to his office and asked me to tell him a story in Runyankole. I had no clue as to what to say, so I thought I could show off my linguistic skills by reciting the “Our Father”. He told me he was satisfied with my progress and declared me sufficiently proficient to embark on real work in the parish. This is when he told me that he was sending me to the bush for a week to visit people. As I said before, this broke the ice for me linguistically, and after that baptism of fire I felt much more at ease: the language seeped into my body at a constantly faster pace. My teacher at the Training College was happy with my progress and he sent a report to the bishop who graciously informed me that I was now fully part of the diocesan team. I felt good and thought I had reached a level of proficiency such that I could consider myself a Munyankole! What a crazy idea as I realized very soon, at my own expense, that I did not know that much. When you mix the words “ente” and “sente”, which means “cow” and “money” you realise there is still a long way to go. But the youth will dream no matter what.

I then got assigned to looking after the youth in the parish and was to organize all kinds of activities which would bring them together. We had a group called the Xaverians, quite close to scouting really but adapted to African traditions, and song and dance were an important part of the life of such groups. Other youth activities took place in a rather unorganized manner but then it brought young people together and it was a golden opportunity to pass on some christian and human values which hopefully would assist them in their lives. I was also appointed bursar of the house (makes sense when you had studied law!), and had to ensure that all members in the house were properly fed on time and in sufficient quality and quantity. In fact, I used my culinary skills here and innovated some dishes I had learned from my mother, passing them on to the girls looking after our wellbeing. I never had a complaint from my colleagues and the only thing I heard once was that my cooking was better than that of a German colleague who once prepared boiled and burned onion soup with plenty of salt! Once, I decided to improve our produce of eggs and sold all our local chicken to buy exotic chicks. What a disaster as they all died in a matter of days; for me this was another lesson: local chickens are adapted to the local environment! I got no brownie points for this move!

But parish work had many facets, and for me each day was a new discovery. Almost every day a catechist from an outstation came to call one of us to go and visit sick people. This was a golden opportunity to polish my language skills and especially to keep physically fit, because visiting people in their homes was done on foot as roads where a car could pass (if you had a car) were non existing. But then when you are young you enjoy such walks over hills and in plains and have an opportunity to see the land and meet the people. Language through osmosis became a reality for me!

In Mbarara diocese, parishes were divided into centres, often covering the size of a standard parish in Europe. Depending on the size of the parish the number of centres will increase so as to enable the parish staff to have an impact. But being only five people for a population of over 60,000 over such vast territory was an almost impossible task. So each centre had at its head a catechist who would preform all pastoral duties the parish staff could not perform. They would gather at the parish every month for a general meeting and be briefed about plans of work. Their advise was precious as they were in fact the guys doing the donkey work in our Christian communities. Without them parishes would not exist!

But life in a parish such as Ibanda was never dull. Having a group of Irish nuns, five of them running the hospital together with four Dutch doctors (two female and two male), four other guys working in the Training College, the Catechists’ school staff, and five from the senior school, was for all of us a reason to meet at regular intervals and organize a party. We were always guaranteed excellent food because of our Irish friends, how could you not love the Irish! Good singing and dancing was always part of the parties but with one drawback: seven women and sixteen men was sometimes problematic in terms of choosing a partner for a dance. To avoid unnecessary jealousy or clashes, group dancing was a common feature at our encounters, and God knows if the Irish were good at it! But then when there is sufficient liquid to accompany the solid food no one could complain about some wrong steps.

And so for three years I enjoyed my work and the lifestyle we had on the “hill”. Hard work during the day but good relaxation in the evenings. One day it was decided that all those working at the Hospital, the Parish, the TTC, the Catechist School, and the Senior School would have a football match against the senior students of the Senior School. Total success for the young guys; total disaster for the “older” ones. I was supposed to be the goalie but we lost 12 to 0! Not so good, but we celebrated afterwards in a perfect way by organising a gigantic BBQ where I cannot even remember how people attended.

But good times always have an end, and one day, returning from a visit to a sick person, I bumped into the Bishop who was sitting in my office. He got straight to the point and told me: “I am moving you to another Parish, where someone has to clear up the finances. The Finance man of the Diocese, Roland, remember him? tells me you are the man for that job!” So this was going to be my new life in a far away place, Rwera, a life of silence and silence and more silence, as my colleague was not very often present and when he was, he was rather monastic in his ways. And so another chapter begins. I will tell you all about these quieter times in my next post.

Thanks for reading about my exploits!

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