Life in Uganda


In 1975, after eights months in Europe for some leave interspersed with a six-month stint at Oxford University where I followed a course on medical ethics, I returned to Uganda to take up a new post at Ggaba National Seminary. The rector of the place came to Mushanga to pick me up with all my belongings. I am always amazed at the amount of things a person gathers in just a few years. The Canadian sisters had left Mushanga and had also given me some of their nice furniture as well as some kitchen implements. These would come in handy over the years. So there I was moving to the big city full of ideas about what I was going to do. I had been asked to teach Canon Law to the four groups of students, some two hundred in total, as well as give them some practical experiences of my life in Mbarara and introduce them to real parish life.

But first I thought I should settle in at Ggaba where I was given a small apartment: one biggish room to serve as office and sitting room, one bedroom and a bathroom. Next to it a small store which I would use to its maximum capacity. I got myself a fridge and a microwave, stocked the store with some goodies and repainted the whole place after installing some decent lighting. New curtains were bought during one of our car-acquiring trips to Mombasa, and after one week I was fully equipped and installed to start yet another phase of my life.

My colleagues at Ggaba were from different nationalities: Ugandan, Austrian, Dutch, Spanish, and Canadian. We quickly became a good team, and work together was easy and pleasant. Certainly a positive sign when working in a new environment. As I have always enjoyed receiving people, I had the opportunity to organize many small gatherings with some good food and drinks. You can make life as pleasant as you want when you make an effort to get there! My place became known very soon as the “real ice cream” place. In fact, I had brought with me some ice cream powder from Belgium and with condensed milk managed to make an exquisite sweet substance which we called “ice cream”. Now to make this sustainable I had to find a way to get supplies in regularly. A friend from the French embassy gave me a catalogue of a Danish company supplying embassies. I wrote to them and asked if a private individual could benefit from their services. The answer came “Yes, no problem.” So there I was with a regular route to some little extras to make our lives more pleasant. Entrepreneurship has always been part of my life!

Of course I also sat down at my desk and started serious work; in fact I spent many long days reading and writing my lecture notes. At that time there was no Internet or email, hence we had to rely on our books. As during my stay in Belgium I had managed to buy some good reading materials, I thought I was well equipped for the task. And then my colleagues were always willing to help and put at my disposal what they had. Also the library of the place was well stocked and they subscribed to a good number of journals and purchased books regularly. I had landed in a really good working environment with all the facilities I could dream of for the moment.

Soon we realised that given the size of the campus it might be good to try to install some internal telephone system. I was charged with the task to find a system and so we purchased a complete telephone system, both internal and external. It made life easier for everyone. My boss, the rector, had sniffed out that I had been involved in the bringing of vehicles from Mombasa for Interservice. So one evening he came to see me and asked if I could get a fourteen-seater minibus for the place. I must say I was taken aback by this request and asked candidly “who is going to pay?” No problem, was the answer, tell me where to transfer money and it will be done. Soon Ggaba Seminary had its own means of transport. But then the question arose in my mind: “if we can purchase a vehicle like this who is going to service it?”, given the state of maintenance in the country. The solution came to my mind immediately: we should build our own garage, equip it well, and do the service ourselves. I had enough friends in Uganda who were good mechanics and their assistance would certainly be no problem. So I got down to it, and soon we converted an old building attached to the garages of the seminary into a good mechanical workshop with service pit, metal shop, and carpentry section. I ordered a small compressor from Belgium and a friend at the transport company (he was the former Belgian consul to Uganda), informed me that it had been shipped by plane in the boot of a brand new Mercedes vehicle … destined for Amin! Now this was great news, but how on earth could we get it out of that car and over to our place. I went to the ever-resourceful boss at Interservice, and believe it or not within three days the compressor was at Ggaba and soon the garage was in full swing. He had simply gone to the vehicle holding centre, talked to the guys there, and then opened the boot and took what was ours! What you can do with a bit of initiative is phenomenal, and the guys of Interservice certainly had plenty of it. I was a happy punter, and sometimes in the evenings after my lectures, I would spend some time in the workshop doing small repairs and servicing lawnmowers and other small equipment. I eventually learned how to service my own car and did so for some years to come. To get things really moving we hired the services of a full-time carpenter who proved to be most reliable and really a super craftsman. The amount of savings this made for the seminary was enormous. I remember years later when visiting Ggaba in the early 90s, I went to the workshop and, believe it or not, my carpenter friend was still there and proudly showed me all the tools I had left behind when leaving Ggaba. Everything was still in excellent condition and used to the maximum!

All these activities made my teaching life more pleasant and varied; I remember one staff meeting where a colleague asked if we could find a way to store foodstuffs in greater quantity so as to avoid travelling around the city to find supplies. I came up with the wild idea of building a cool room. In fact, I had noticed that space had been already been built for that purpose in the main kitchen but the equipment had neither been purchased nor installed. So the green light was given and again through Interservice we got all the needed materials for a cool room: insulation, cooling equipment, special door etc. A local workshop had some really nice galvanised sheets which could be used as the shelves in the cool room. I must say I spent some long hours fixing insulation, the electrical equipment, and the compressor, and after some three weeks the place was finished and functioning well. My friend the rector decided that we should store some beef and he dutifully trotted off to a local village with the seminary lorry and came back with two cows. The meat had still to be carved properly and hung in the cool room. But boy did we enjoy excellent steaks in Ggaba! But I also learned that bones can prick your fingers badly and infection is quickly a part of your physical being. You learn through experience, and my carving skills improved greatly during my time at Ggaba, even though butchery was not to be much use for my later life, I must admit! Now that we had a cool room, I suggested that the seminary should have a good vegetable garden, and why on earth don’t we raise some pigs and hens for our own consumption. So my little skills in construction proved most useful in setting up a nice piggery and hen houses. What law studies can bring you to do will always astonish me! This was the beginning of a nice little farm on campus and the students benefitted from it not only by way of good food, but also by way of their involvement in the farm. I myself had some eager students helping in the workshop and some proved to be excellent at their work. Practical skills would certainly be a positive asset for these young men once they joined real life in a parish!

It was also during these times in the workshop that we, students and myself, discussed matters concerning the life of the seminary and how we could bring new ideas to bear fruit in our lives. It was great to have willing young minds willing to be involved in the improvement of their training and future life. One thing my students learned was that there is no shame in having your hands dirty and doing manual labour. We need that type of pastor in our parishes, and I am sure many one of them used their skills to the maximum in their future life. But don’t think I didn’t do academic work too: each week I had some five hours of lectures plus seminars and guidance sessions – a full time table if you want to make a good job of it!

During my stay at Ggaba I got involved in teaching at Makerere Medical School where I was asked to give some lectures on medical ethics and law. I had obtained a small grant from a German organisation and with it purchased a good amount of books for the small library we set up at Makerere. But teaching in a state university can be tricky and I was not the kind of person to let just anything pass me by. I had been asked to give some lectures on constitutional law as a guest lecturer and I accepted with great pleasure. This was, perhaps, a bad move and would prove to be my downfall. One Friday morning during one of my lectures in constitutional law, a student asked about the legality of some actions taken by political leaders in the country. My response was clear, “it is unconstitutional!”. Not the correct answer, as I was “kindly” asked by the powers that be to leave the country. Thus it was that by the next Wednesday I was on a plane on my way back to Belgium. A short-lived assignment I must say! I was to lose most of what I had in terms of worldly possessions, especially my library, but my life was intact, and for that I gave thanks. This was another new beginning for me, and in my next blogpost I will briefly recall some of the activities I undertook from September 1982 to March 1993 when I returned to Uganda under completely different circumstances. Looking at it now, those years of exile were God sent, as they enabled me to create contacts and build up a network of people who would be most helpful in my later life in Uganda.

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