Life in Uganda


In September 1974 I received an aerogramme from my parents. For those not knowing what an aerogramme is because it has been so long since we used them, it was a blue thin paper, prepared and preprinted in such a way that space was foreseen for writing a message, a space for address of addressee and lines to show where to fold the paper. Once folded it appeared as a small envelope to be posted airmail and at reduced price, the postage stamp being printed on the paper. A very practical and easy little thing in the age of little communications technology!

The message was simple: “We are coming to see you at Mushanga Parish next year in April and would like to stay for ten days”. Now this was brilliant news; who could refuse a visit from one’s own parents? My answer was a clear and loud yes!

Soon April 1974 was there, and on the day of their arrival I was at Entebbe Airport at 5am to receive them – what a warm reunion for us all! Almost immediately my mother asked me with an embarrassed tone of voice: “Can we stay for three weeks, as we got a much cheaper ticket that way?” Yes, of course; three weeks was way better than 10 days! One of the Canadian nuns of Mushanga had accompanied me to entertain my parents during the trip back home. I had done my shopping the day before, and the boot of the car was packed with lots of goodies, at least those one could find in Kampala at the time. I was fortunate that I had found a case of rather good French wine in the Industrial area of the capital, and also some bottles of the local Gin called Waragi. Brewed from banana juice, it was not bad at all. One cannot find that kind of ‘gin’ any longer today, unfortunately! My friend Fons was also at the airport and he explained to my parents that the car was so full because when we come to town we do our major shopping. My mother asked me why I did not go to the local grocery shop, but she would soon get the answer when she saw Mushanga.

So off we drove immediately and by 6.30am we had already reached the outskirts of Kampala on our way to the west of the country. You try doing that today: Entebbe to the outskirts of Kampala in 40 minutes? Around 8.30 we had reached Masaka and decided to stop for our breakfast. As there was a rather good hotel in town, the Tropical Inn, we made it our first pit stop on the way home. Sitting outside in the early morning sun we ordered breakfast: eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, fruit juice and coffee. My elders were impressed by the kindness of the waiters and the efficiency of their dealing with customers. But their enthusiasm would soon be shattered and after some ten minutes the waiter came out to inform us that they had run out of bacon and sausages, “What would you like” he asked. “Just give us what you have from our order” was my response. Another ten minutes passed and the same waiter re-appeared with the news that eggs and butter were not available, neither was bread. Would we want some fresh coffee instead? What can you say when there is nothing else on offer! So after almost half an hour waiting he came back beaming with a big tray and four cups and saucers and a pot of coffee. I asked if we could get some sugar and milk but the answer was negative as these items too were no longer available! For an introduction to hospitality services in Uganda we had hit the jackpot! The coffee was horrendous, a kind of thick dirty brew tasting nothing like the great coffee we can get today. We made an effort to at least drink something and asked for the bill. This came within minutes, and to my horror I saw that four breakfasts were noted and billed. I told the waiter that we only had coffee but his answer was simple and clear “You have ordered breakfast, and here is the bill.” I argued until the manager turned up who confirmed that we had ordered breakfast and that in a gesture of goodwill he was willing to give us a 50% discount! I had no choice if I wanted to hit the road again, but to pay what he asked for. He must have thought afterwards “I got these bazungu!” Back on the road we laughed at it all and the incident was quickly forgotten. Some hour and half later we reached Mbarara and stopped for a quick cup of coffee, a good one this time, and drove on to Mushanga which was just 25 km away. My Canadian friend had told me that she had arranged something to eat upon our arrival in Mushanga. So we stopped at their place where we enjoyed something hearty and nice which made the welcome great and enjoyable and we all forgot the initial mishaps of the day. The other Canadians in the house, three of them, made a lot of fuss of my parents, and soon they had arranged for them to come back to their place any time and enjoy a game of bridge; my parents loved it, and so did the Canadians. These meetings would become an almost daily occurrence and were accompanied with lots of goodies the good old nuns prepared with great love! How could I not thank them profusely for all this kindness.

After this last pitstop we moved up the hill to the parish residence where my two old friends welcomed my parents with charm and zest. My father quickly became very friendly with the oldest of the two and at the end of their stay my father (a doctor) had noted all that the old man needed for his health and wellbeing, and would arrange to have everything sent out upon his return to Belgium! I settled my parents in their quarters and they were delighted with the setup and standards they were not expecting! I think they were expecting to stay in a grass hut! After a light lunch I advised them to take a rest before meeting for a drink in the early evening. I doubt very much they had a rest and am sure my mother must have been thinking about everything she could have brought to make life more pleasant. For this first evening I had invited our Canadian friends to join us for a drink and small nibbles and then join us for dinner.

Their stay in Uganda passed as a whirlwind. There was so much to do and all our centres had asked for a visit of my parents. On one memorable occasion an old lady came up to my mother, grabbed her bosom and squeezed hard enough that my mother uttered some sort of scream. The old lady, whilst still holding on to my mother, said: “Oh you are such an angel to have given birth to your son!” I have never found out what the good old lady meant.

My father did not like the heat and at Mushanga we had no air conditioning. So he had to cope as best as he could, and in fact he did very well. But on one occasion, during a visit to an centre, he asked me to stop along the road and announced it was too hot and that he did not want to continue the trip! Well my answer was “take of your jacket, it will help to lessen the heat!” He refused as in his mind a gentleman on a visit had to wear a jacket. Finally he accepted after my mother pleaded for some common sense. During the rest of their stay I never saw him with his jacket on again! But then with a visit to Queen Elisabeth National Park things got really exciting and I must say we all enjoyed our three days there. The accommodation was rudimentary, but the service offered was great even if not up to international standards at that time. Seeing so much wildlife and beauty lifted the spirits and made of this parental visit a time not to be forgotten. My mother fell in love with women and their little babies. I do not know how she did it, but she managed to make herself understood each time she asked a question – and she asked, God knows, how many questions – and she seemed to get the answers she was looking for. My father became very friendly with my two older companions and they spent long hours during their stay discussing the situation in the world and my work in Uganda! What transpired from their conversations has always remained a mystery to me.

On the last weekend of their stay I had organised a farewell party. The Canadians really outdid themselves, and a piglet was slaughtered and roasted for the occasion. Fresh lake fish was on the menu, and all was accompanied with the best liquid we had managed to secure. It was a memorable evening with some thirty guests who all enjoyed to the maximum, even my old friends, this unique occasion.

My parents were so taken b the Canadian nuns that they offered them hospitality if and when they would travel to Belgium. I never thought they would but less than a year later two of them were in Belgium and visited my parents. I suppose they all enjoyed reminiscing the long hours they spent together at the bridge table! In any case all were happy to see one another again.

One thing I know for sure is that my parents were beaming with enthusiasm and pride when they recounted their visit to my siblings and the rest of the family. So at least I could rest assured they enjoyed their stay in Uganda and the long hours they played bridge did a lot to smoothen the sometimes harder moments of the visit. Canadian maple syrup and cookies can do wonders!

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