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UGANDA MARTYRS UNIVERSITY

PART 2. Departure and arrival

So on June 1 1993, I was at Brussels Airport with my suitcases and some of my siblings who had come to say goodbye and good luck. I was in a great mood as I was going back to a land I loved and starting a new project: Uganda Martyrs University.

The flight was smooth and without problems and we arrived, as foreseen, at Entebbe International Airport on the 2June at 9am. I was expecting my friend Hilary, coordinator of the university project steering committee, to be there to meet me. No way Sir! I stood there in front of a group of some twenty distinguished ladies and gentlemen welcoming me back to Uganda. They were all the members of the Steering Committee, which later on would be turned into the University Council, and they wanted to make sure, so I thought, that I received a welcome which would convince me that the project was worthwhile and that I would not turn around and run away!. I suppose they were all full of good intentions! Together we travelled to Kampala where a cup of coffee was awaiting us and then a few words of welcome and a big smile from all: GOOD LUCK! Well, as it turned out I would need it.

So there I was at the residence of the Missionaries of Africa in Kampala, with my friend Hilary and my suitcases. “What next?” I asked him. “Well I suppose you will need some time to rest after your long journey?” This put me off my balance as an eight hours flight was not excessively tiring, and I wanted to go to the campus immediately and start work. But no, I had to stay put because we were to visit the patron of the university, Archbishop Wamala, and some other members of the Bishops’ Conference and discuss with them the plans for the university. So my next two days were packed with visits and discussions. I also had the opportunity to meet the Chancellor of the university and, as I knew him from years past, our discussions were easy and without major hiccups!. But then the unexpected happened. In our discussions I asked if I could have a look at the finances of the university project. Hilary obliged and to my horror the accounts had been reduced to a pitiful 50 Dollars and a few Shillings! “What do I do Hilary?” “Well that is why you are here, to fundraise and get the university started!” Easy to say and I must have been living in another world as I just said “Well let us give it a go!” So this conversation brought me back to the reality and I soon realised what the “Good Luck” of the members of the steering Committee truly meant. I asked Hilary what he thought of it and his answer was quick “Let us work together and raise some funds!” To his credit I must say that the good man must have worn out a good number of pairs of shoes on the streets of Kampala to fundraise. His walking around and our visits quickly started bearing fruits, and this gave me the idea to visit an old Indian friend who had stayed behind during the Amin years and was still very busy at his industry. I went to see him at his factory and after proudly showing me around he simply said “Now what are you doing here after so many years?” “I have come to set up a university for the Catholic Bishops.” “Oh, are those the guys who run Interservice?” ”Well in a certain sense yes and you must remember our friend who was in charge?” “Of course that was that man who brought in so many goods via Mombasa!” Phew, we were back on familiar territory and as a result I left his place with a black plastic bag containing one million shillings in small notes. Standing outside the gate of the factory, with my plastic bag, I had to wait about half an hour for my friend Hilary to pick me up. Yes, I was back in Uganda and time did not really matter, as long as you achieve something. I must admit I did not feel comfortable standing there on the street with people staring at that big “mzungu” holding a bulging plastic bag. Luckily no police officer approached me to see what was in the bag, maybe a bomb or some drugs! But fine, I had made my first contribution in Uganda to Uganda Martyrs University. More adventures would follow in fast succession.

Now it was time to think seriously about moving to Nkozi, the proposed location. But Hilary announced “We do not know where you will stay!” “Listen man, I have to move and we will see what is in store once there”. So off we were in his little car, me with my suitcases and a bundle of plans and good will! And you must admit that things always fall into place and on arrival I was welcomed by an old friend Bernard Onyango, former Registrar of Makerere University and now Registrar of Uganda Martyrs University. Together we would work for years setting up the place, and these were good years with great collaboration and friendship. He had arranged for me to stay at the local hospital in the doctor’s house, which was empty for the coming months. This would give us some time to look around for permanent residence. In fact, works were going on to renovate and improve the former residence of the principal of the former National Teachers College, to become the Vice Chancellor’s residence. The college had been given by the Ministry of Education to the Bishops so that they would have a site to start the university. Good idea but the works which had to be done to bring the place to a decent status were enormous and you can understand why government was keen to hand over such infrastructures which needed massive investments. Fine, as time is not of great importance, we set out to tackle the task. I moved into the doctor’s house and it was more than what I needed for the moment. The problem was that I had nothing with me to do some cooking and other domestic chores. I asked the person responsible of the hospital if I could use what was in the cupboards but met a cold NO, this belongs to the hospital. Now how Hilary and Bernard managed to get the house but not the use of its contents will always remain a mystery to me. I had some past experience to live in the bush so I knew what I should get to make myself reasonably comfortable. It worked out and after a few days I could hold a first evening meeting preceded with a friendly Spaghetti Bolognese. Bernard came down with his secretary, the assistant registrar, who was a former staff of the college, the human resource manager of the university, the finance officer and the driver of the university! We enjoyed the meal and afterwardsI suggested that the driver take himself off as I wanted to discuss a few urgent points regarding the university. He left the room but stayed outside the door for the rest of the evening and must have heard all we discussed! No wonder news moves around fast in Africa!

Our main concerns were the first students’ intake and the date of opening. Now that I had had time to visit the site and assess the place, I saw that a few buildings were in reasonably good condition but needed a good cleanup and some paint, and so we decided that the first intake would be on October 18 1993 and not September as initially announced. Also the first group of students would be limited to 84, some for the Institute of Ethics and some for the Faculty of Business Administration. We made the selection of students that evening, even if another selection had been made earlier. The next morning new faces appeared on campus: the new dean of the faculty and two lecturers. They had been appointed before my arrival and I could do nothing but to welcome them on the team. Another person, formerly teaching at University College Dublin, had been appointed earlier in the year, and in fact she was the first formally appointed academic staff member. She would arrive at the end of the month and set up residence at my place because there was nowhere else to go.

So there we had the first staff of the university: five administrators and eight academics. We also had a small community of the Little Sisters of St Francis (cook, nurse, gardener) and some technical assistance: a carpenter, an electrician, a plumber and the driver. I think I can say at this point that this small group would turn out to be a team of marvellous dedication and I felt good to start the adventure on the ground and at the Equator. Yes the campus itself straddled on the Equator, one part in the Northern and another in the Southern hemisphere. We used to joke that we could have breakfast in the northern hemisphere and sleep in the southern hemisphere! I do not think there are many in the world in such location! But we were there and could start work in earnest, but also meet our first challenges of a magnitude I never expected. Luckily I had the people around me who were full of dedication and generosity. But this for the next time!

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Life in Uganda

Uganda Martyrs University

Part 1 Preparations

So there I was, appointed to set up a university in the heart of Africa. Sometimes you wonder why you are asked to do certain things, but do not think too long because you may not do anything! My first plan was to complete my current assignments, university teaching until March 1993 and the tribunal work to the same time, so I had almost a full year to prepare a “few things” I felt necessary to make things work. As I had visited the place in March 1992, I had a fair idea of what would be needed.

First, some work on academic programmes: which ones to set up? Given the situation in the country it appeared that some fresh ideas in management and in ethical behaviour might be a good thing. Thus two faculties were proposed: a Faculty of Business Administration and Management a Faculty of Ethics, which later would become the Institute of Ethics and Development Studies, a first in the world at that time! I submitted my ideas to the steering committee and they were approved. This gave me an open road to write some notes for a first academic catalogue. I had it printed and sent some copies to the chair of the steering committee for use and distribution to potential first students.

Now came the big beast: where do I get the money for this venture? I had been assured that there were funds available in a university account in Uganda but was never told how much! Maybe it was a bit naïve on my part, but I worked with that assumption in my head and set out planning what basic things I would need, ranging from computers to lecture rooms and a library, to printers and a good photocopier. Of course for such big printing jobs you need paper, I ordered two pallets of good A4 paper, alongside envelopes and all manner of office supplies (these lasted around 10 years!!). Offices had to be equipped and the small bits and pieces were purchased not forgetting some decent office chairs. Once I had placed the order the owner of the business asked me: “But how are you gong to pay for all that?” “Well, how much do I owe you?” was my answer. He gave me a figure and I wrote him a cheque for the said amount. The next day I received a phone call from the Missionaries of Africa in Brussels, who were aware of my foraging for office goods, if indeed I had made such big order. “Of course and you know that I have been asked to start a university in Uganda!” was my answer. “But who pays?” “I wrote them a cheque, so what is the problem?” “Are you sure you have the money because we will not foot the bill”. I just said: “Watch me!” and put down the phone. I must say in hindsight I had some guts to do that, but then it was the truth, a truth that would cost me blood, sweat, and tears to bring to reality!

Now a university needs some basic books to set up a library with relevant materials. As I was teaching at Louvain University I went to see the librarian. Kindly she told me that there was a fund in the vaults of the Institute of Nuclear Physics, where all kinds of books were waiting collection. I was free to go there and take whatever I wanted, free of charge. Boy, did I raid the place! I felt good after that and thus more boxes went to the collection point for packing into the containers.

Now, I had to set up residence on campus but the house was under construction and I doubted very much there would be practical facilities such as a kitchen and bathroom installed. So I trotted up to IKEA and bought the needed furniture for kitchen and bathroom. In another shop I purchased a fridge, cooker, freezer, and washing machine. A few extra kitchen implements were also bought to make life more practical. But life has also to be palatable. At home I still had a fair amount of good wines and decided to have them packed as well. To ensure they would arrive safely all the boxes were labelled “Books” and indeed made the trip safely. At least this made life much more pleasant once settled down at “home”.

All in all a sizeable amount of goods which would have to be crated and sent to a central place to be placed in a container. With a friend working at a freighting company I ordered for a 20 foot container. At the end of the day I had two containers of 40 feet each, one being my property for storage in Uganda. In one container my car had to be crated. In it I packed more valuable things and I would never regret doing that! Small things can become big and I have learned that things expand as time goes by! In any case as I had two containers I offered my Irish colleague to have things sent to Belgium and then to the container for travel to Uganda. Two pallets arrived a few weeks later at my place. Some Ugandan students, completing their studies in Belgium, were offered to put their goods and possessions in the containers and so have them shipped to Uganda. Now one thing I had been warned about was the uncertainty of moving goods in East Africa. So, against the advise of the freighting company, I took a comprehensive insurance to cover travel and goods. I will never regret it! The company told me they never had had any problem with the goods they were transporting. Maybe my suspicion was a premonition for what would happen later.

As for the cheque I wrote to pay for all the goods, I had contacted a Dutch charity, I have already mentioned them in an earlier blog, and within twenty four hours I managed to fundraise some one hundred thousand dollars, which covered generously all expenses. My lesson in this: “Do things the way you think best and trust that some will be standing behind you to support you, financially if need be, otherwise certainly!” Over the years that one charity gave Uganda Martyrs University the sizeable sum of about three million dollars which enabled me to set up a super institution. Others chipped in so that we could always cover the expenses we thought necessary. Maybe I have always been very trusting, maybe too trusting, and I remember my family asking me “Are you sure?” I think they really meant “Are you mad?”.

With all these preparations behind me, I finally drove my car to Antwerp where the goods would be crated and placed in the containers. When I saw the mountain of goods waiting to travel, I just could not believe my eyes and there I was with a car to be added to the lot. One thing struck me: a huge wooden crate with Rank Xerox written large on the side. What was that? Just a suitably-sized photocopier for a university I was told!

So there I was with what I had planned as necessary for the setting up of such project. I knew there would be many more things needed, but then I was sure I could find them later when they became really needed. I could complete my tasks at my office at the tribunal and my teaching at university and start looking at my own suitcases to get me on the way back to Uganda. This would happen on 1 June 1993.

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Life in Uganda

EXILE

In 1982 I had been “kindly” requested to leave Uganda. So on 11 August 1982 I found myself onboard a Sabena flight to Brussels, and I arrived there in the late hours of the day. The reception was low key, no flowers nor red carpet! I explained in simple words what had happened and everyone accepted quietly! So for me the main thing was some days rest and then make plans for the future. I will not recall everything in detail but just highlight some events that were to have significance for my future life back in Uganda.

My initial instinct was to make a tour of higher educational institutions on the great island, Britain. If you can read Bill Bryson’s marvellous book Notes from a Small Island, you will realise that there is a lot to be experienced from living on the island! I planned to travel to Edinburgh, Dundee, then Glasgow, and finally Oxford, where I had already been some years earlier, and explore what options were available for me. In Dundee I was met by two marvellous people, Jim Robertson of the Law Faculty and David Ward, the university chaplain. They used all their charm, and with the help of some local “brew”, they persuaded me to stay in Dundee and take up a teaching position at the university. I accepted and never looked further to Glasgow and Oxford. I quickly learned about the richness and warmth of Scottish hospitality and had no problem to integrate into the life of the “Faculty of Law and Accounting”. Strange combination but then why not? I took on some lectures in Comparative Law, Roman Law, and English Criminal Law. This made sense as the Scottish legal system is based on Roman Law, and the use of English Criminal Law in Scotland is wide. I had some really nice colleagues and all of them were more than happy to assist me in settling down. Jim did not take long to introduce me to the immense variety of the Scottish golden liquid (uisge-beatha, literally, the “water of life”). I have no idea how many types there are but certainly one for each day of the year. The pub not far from uni was called the “Town and Gown”, and often we congregated there for some serious legal discussion under the cloud of vapours emanating from the bar. After these sessions Jim often took me back to his home, where Anne, his wife, knew how to put together the most sobering meals!

During my stay in Dundee some family members visited me, and this gave me the opportunity to visit this beautiful land, Scotland. I have never fallen out of love with Scotland although my most frequent visits in the last thirty years or so have been to that other great island: Ireland. But this idyllic life was about to change: one day in 1985 I received a phone call from Louvain University where the Dean of Theology/Canon Law asked me to come to Louvain University in Belgium to take up the position of professor in Canon Law. I hesitated but Jim convinced me it was a good step in an academic career. This was a decision I bitterly regret because when I got to Louvain some two months later, I was informed that the position had been given to someone else and that I could teach one subject a year! Now as a blow this was one of seismic proportions. Having nothing else on my plate and no options in Dundee where I had resigned, and so I bit my lip and settled at Louvain University. But things can change very quickly and, quite unexpectedly, in no time I had a full time teaching load and settled in a very nice apartment in town. This all gave me new opportunities and new contacts with international organisations which later would support me when back in Uganda.

During my time in Louvain (the new campus was, in fact, called Louvain-la-Neuve), I was asked to be visiting professor at Fribourg University in Switzerland. The Swiss are amazingly well organised, and not a single thing was left to chance to cover the work I was doing there: twice a month from Thursday to Saturday – all in all eight hours of teaching. Travel expenses, by plane, were covered, and my imparting of some knowledge to young people which resulting in me remunerated handsomely in hard Swiss currency! I learned to appreciate real Swiss cheese fondue accompanied with a good Swiss white wine. And a must was a visit to Gruyère itself, an exquisite little place, where in winter you have the best cheese fondue in the world, and in summer the best strawberries with fresh cream. All to die for! I do not think that the Swiss can easily be upset by anything as they take everything in their stride and everything in its correct time!

So here I was full time at Louvain and visiting in Switzerland. I thought I had achieved a good status and that I would continue my academic career in peace in Belgium and Switzerland. No sir, someone was watching me, and one day I received a phone call from the Vicar General of Malines-Brussels Archdiocese in Belgium. I was summoned to his office the next day at 11 am. What did I do to receive such an urgent call and especially to appear before the man responsible for good order and discipline. It was with some trepidation that I appeared in front of the little old man, Monsignor Paul Theeuws, who told me to sit down and listen. What was coming? I recall here his exact words. “You are young and well qualified, and you speak French and Flemish fluently. I am an old man and after fifty years in this job I wish to retire. So I am telling you that you have to take over from me as soon as possible.” You can guess my surprise! “I am taking you to Cardinal Danneels to introduce you immediately. He will appoint you as my successor”. Not much choice was given but I managed to get 24 hours to think it all over. The next day I was back in the same office and told the old man I accepted. Within the hour I sat with my new boss who, with a smile, told me: “how can I say no to the old man, he has been running this place for so long and knows all the ins and outs!” And that’s how I was appointed President of the Ecclesiastical Court of Appeal of Belgium with immediate effect. For the next five years I would work there, continuing my teaching work at the university. I must say I got used to this task, in fact I enjoyed it, even if it was sometimes nerve racking. At that stage of my life I truly did have full time work with my teaching both in Louvain and Fribourg, plus my work at the Tribunal. I must say that I had a really fine team to work with and after two years I had the first woman judge appointed to the Court of Appeal. It was a big step forward, and I am sure that even today people will think we were far-sighted for our time.

But all this was not without small problems, especially on the part of my dean at the faculty in Belgium. He tried one day to tell me that I needed his permission to teach in Switzerland and to be President of the Court of Appeal! I wondered why he said this, as nowhere in the university statutes was it stated that this was the rule. So I ignored him and he ignored me, but in fact made my life difficult in many aspects. I held out for five years till in mid-1992 I received a fax at my office in Malines. It came from Uganda and a certain Hilary Tibanyenda. I had known the man in Mbarara, and he had called to ask me to do some fundraising for a planned Catholic University in Uganda. How could I do this for a project I had no knowledge about? I knew the idea had been floated as far back as the early 1940s, but to talk about such a project in a time where the local situation was anything but stable and strong, seemed to me daydreaming. So I wrote telling him that I didn’t see how I could assist him. But the man was stubborn and did not give up. Some weeks later he wrote back submitting a project document for a university. “Maybe this could help you to raise some funds”, having just ignored my previous rejection of the request. Since he was so persistent and did not give up on me I wrote back telling him that I would see what I could do. I went to see my boss Cardinal Danneels and told him the story. His answer came immediately and very clearly “If you want to go back to Africa I will not stand in your way and will give you all the support you may need!” The final blow came some weeks later in another letter from Kampala, where the chairman of the Steering Committee of the planned university offered me the position of founding Vice Chancellor of the planned Uganda Martyrs University. In his letter he wrote: “We are aware that your teaching contract with Louvain University is ending in March 1993, and the same is true for Fribourg University.” How on earth he knew this I don’t know, but it was indeed a fact that both contracts were due for renewal. Sometimes you wonder how things happen in life, but in mine it seemed that things certainly happened in mysterious ways.

So there I was at the end of 1992 with an offer for a new project and it just stirred something in me pushing me to move in that direction and accept to change the course of my life. I talked to some colleagues at the university and all stood behind me and offered whatever support they could give. In November 1992 a colleague from the Faculty of Philosophy at Louvain introduced me to an Irish philosopher visiting Louvain. We talked about the whole project and she offered to come and help me in Uganda for one year. Today she is still in Uganda but in a different position I must admit! Immediately I got back into contact with old friends who had assisted in fundraising in the 1970s and 80s and soon I was well on the way to making the project a reality. Hilary had won! By March 1993 I had completed my contracts with Malines, with Louvain, and with Fribourg, and was free to move in the direction I thought best for me. This forthcoming project would become an important part of my life in the years to come. But this is another story and some blogs will follow to meander through all the intricacies of setting up a university on The Equator in Africa.

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Life in Uganda

GGABA NATIONAL SEMINARY

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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Uncategorized

THE AMIN YEARS

In my previous blog I have already mentioned Idi Amin. Let me recall some events where I encountered Idi Amin more closely or at least had dealings with his regime!

When he took power in January 1972, Kampala erupted in joy, a ”dictator” – they meant Obote – was gone. The man taking over was chief of the army and had been put there by Obote himself for the simple reason that he hoped that Amin would not cause any problems in the future. Amin was illiterate and his use of the English language was rather limited. One year, during his regime, he was invited to Buckingham Palace and at the state banquet, her Majesty the Queen is reported to have invited Amin to have a second helping. “No thanks Madam, I am fed up!” was the answer. I have no idea what Her Majesty thought! Many stories about his Kampala meetings can be heard in Kampala.

But, whatever Obote had hoped, the placing of Amin at the head of the Ugandan Army was a bad calculation. And yet that explosion of joy of the first days was not going to last very long. I recall a very highly-educated individual telling me after the takeover: “at last someone had given us our country back!” Maybe, but already in July 1972 the Indians (mostly successful traders) were expelled from Uganda. In July also some top army officers were planning a take-over but this was foiled by one of the conspirators. After that, things spiralled downwards at an incredible pace; the ones suffering under this were the little people and the have nots. Repression became the rule (in past blogs I have already touched on some of these aspects). The number of individuals who suffered death under Amin’s regime will always remain unknown, but it is estimated that at least half a million people died!

But there are some other aspects of the person of Amin (full title: His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular), which, when looked at today, make us smile. I remember one year he was to visit Ibanda and we had to stock up in whisky; his love for a good whisky was indeed great. But to see such a colossus of a man coming to you and grabbing both your hands in one of his hands still makes me shiver and conjures up ideas of repression. That same one hand was once shown in a newspaper article of him holding in it his latest newborn baby (and there was still space!). When meeting expatriates Amin had the habit of greetings them graciously with a big smile and a big “thank you!” We never knew what he really meant but we smiled back and said numerous “welcomes”.

When my parents visited me it was during the Amin years. I have already recounted their visit and it was during that time that I managed to find a full case of excellent Bordeaux in the industrial area of Kampala. Where the guy got it from remains a mystery to me. But we did enjoy it despite the other hardships we endured! One thing though that remains a semi-mystery: during all the long years of Obote I, Obote II, and Idi Amin, the breweries continued working!

Early in the Amin years there had been an attempt by rebels coming from Tanzania to invade Uganda via Mbarara. Again this failed but the day it happened I was travelling to Mbarara from Mushanga. Maybe it was my sense of adventure which put me on the road to Mbarara! I wanted to know what was happening, but we were stopped at the entry of town and were told to turn back as there was some fighting in the outskirts of town. We heard some shots and thought it was best to return to base. The man leading the assault would come back later on the political scene of Uganda and finally take over in 1986: Yoweri Kaguta Museveni who is still running the country today.

When the Indians were expelled Uganda degenerated into almost total chaos. In no time the economy collapsed as those who were running it were either leaving voluntarily or (mostly) expelled. For them it was certainly traumatic: on their way to Entebbe Airport, they were stopped at various road blocks and systematically all their possessions taken from them by drunk and drugged soldiers, so that many left empty handed with only their lives more or less intact. However, their industrious spirit would help them in their new lands of residence to emerge as new economic powers. Some even returned to Uganda to start all over again.

Amin had his own way of humiliating people, and one day he had a group of Brittons standing in front of him and they were told to kneel down and recognize him as their lord and master. They did so! One of them, Bob Astles, even became a top advisor in Amin’s government and by God he learned the tricks of cruelty from his master very quickly and was eager to enforce the erratic decisions of Amin. What was called the “State Research” acted as the frightening arm of Amin’s regime. Random imprisonment and death became the norm, and Nile Hotel in Kampala became the headquarters of the place of torture and death. It was said that Amin had a tunnel dug from State House Nakasero to Nile Hotel, which was not very far and that he occasionally visited prisoners to see “how they were doing”. I imagine the fear and fright on their faces when they saw him coming.

During that time a new airforce was created and a few old Mig Jets were bought from Russia. Russian pilots flew them but I have no recollection of any military activity on their part. I suppose those guys were staying in good hotels and enjoyed their time in Uganda. But all was not well for the people and especially politicians. Amin could not stand any criticism and the slightest hint of it would mean torture and death. Some people managed to get through it and save their lives. One case was a high ranking officer, in fact the first fully Sandhurst trained Ugandan officer, who lived through the whole regime. He was even appointed head of the Uganda Development Corporation. But his fate turned sour immediately after the overthrow of Amin and some soldiers of the new regime brought him down in front of his own family. Sad indeed!

For survival you sometimes do crazy things – I have already narrated the story of my car with an extra petrol tank! A flying bomb indeed! Living under Amin regime was not always easy, and you had to keep your head down to avoid trouble. However, sometimes trouble comes to you. On the way home from my teaching at Makerere University one afternoon I overtook some military vehicles. On reaching home, I was almost immediately surrounded by those same vehicles, soldiers spilling out with rifles cocked. I was saved by a large group of students who had heard the commotion. Boy, was I lucky that day! And so one can then imagine how the liberators were received in 1979 when they entered Kampala. Joy was the agenda of the day. I recall the weeks before the overthrow of Amin. I was living at Ggaba National Seminary and evening after evening we could hear shelling in the distance. They were called “saba-saba” and it became a habit, when the shelling started, to hear people shouting “more, more”. Once the Tanzanian army, together with some Ugandan rebels, took over Kampala the joy was real but very subdued. The Tanzanians, a very disciplined army, liberated the whole country and left Kampala in the hands of the rebels. This was going to be the beginning of another dark period for Uganda with five years of repression and military coups. It was only in 1986 that a more definite liberation came our way and since then we have lived in relative peace and prosperity.

Books have been written about Amin and even films produced. They all contain pieces of truth but I cannot assure you that all is as it had been. It was bad and the ones who suffered most were the ones who dared to raise their heads above the parapet. Sometimes it is best to live a “low key” life! But one thing is for sure: I really did live in interesting times.

Categories
Life in Uganda

BANKING IN UGANDA

Banking services in most countries are intended to facilitate all kinds of transactions as well as helping people and organisations save and manage their financial resources. When I came to Uganda in 1967, I wanted to open a bank account so that I could manage my small resources and make international transactions between Belgium and Uganda. I walked into Grindlays bank in Mbarara and asked to open a bank account. Presenting my passport, a small sum of money to kick start the account and filling in some forms was sufficient for me to be in possession of a tool which would help me over the years. It was indeed all so simple then compared to today.

But unforeseen events may happen in a country, and the military take-over by Idi Amin in 1972, (my next blog will tell you more), was certainly not foreseen, and it was to have severe repercussions on the economy of the country. Already in the years preceding this military coup, the economy was in a weak position, and, as a consequence, slowly a parallel economy grew. Uganda being essentially an agricultural country, such a shift to a parallel economy happened without major problems because all major transactions were cash based. And so we began to witness the first signs of a monetary devaluation as the Uganda Shilling slipped to always lower levels. In 1967 I could buy a gallon of petrol for 7 shillings, which was the equivalent of one US dollar. In 1972 the dollar was exchanged at 60 shillings on the official market and close to 500 shillings on the parallel market.

This situation brought me into trouble with the archbishop of Kampala. I was living at Ggaba National Seminary and some colleagues received donations in various currencies from friends and relatives. They wanted a decent exchange rate and the finance department of the archdiocese was giving them the official exchange rate, which was indeed the right thing to do for an official body. But then some colleagues came to me and asked if I could cash their cheques and give them a decent exchange. So I simply gave them the parallel exchange rate and everybody was happy. The recipient had a good amount for their cheques but I was stranded with a certain amount of cheques in foreign currencies! What to do? I decided the only way forward was to send these to my bank in Belgium and have them deposited on my bank account so that I could refund the value of the cheques to the person who had given me a good exchange rate directly into his bank account, wherever it was. But the archbishop got word about my dealings and duly showed his displeasure. “You should not do that and all these cheques should come to me so that I give them the official rate”. But I did not believe what I heard because I knew that he himself was changing all his cheques at the parallel rate. I bluntly refused as I knew that he would pocket an undue sum of money by just counting on double exchange rates. I received a dark look but it ended there as he knew what I knew!

All this parallel economic activity had also an impact on the official banking sector of Uganda. In 1972, I had to travel to Belgium for the wedding of my sister, and obviously needed to buy an airline ticket. But … to get this I needed hard currency, as Sabena Airlines (now Brussels Airlines) did not accept Uganda Shillings. In any case, to travel outside the country one needed a clearance from the Ministry of Internal Affairs stating that I was a “Bona Fide” person (a thing I have always thought I was!). It was then that they gave permission to the Bank of Uganda to issue the exact amount in US Dollars to cover the cost of the ticket. So, I walked to the Bank with all the required papers and arrived at the main banking hall. There were very few people except some police officers and few bank employees. I enquired where I had to go and they showed me to a teller who was in charge of giving out foreign currency for travellers. The girl, very polite and helpful, asked me what I wanted, looked at my papers and calculated quickly that my ticket of USD 450 would cost me 27,000/= UGX. Whilst waiting for the transaction to be completed I noticed that above her counter was written “Window 1”. The next teller had “Window 2”. The girl, again very helpful, explained to me that “Window 2” was for exchanging foreign money into UGX and that I would get the parallel market rate! Slightly puzzled I told her that I wanted to exchange some money and she showed me to “Window 2”. Now here comes the crux. I just wondered what I should do to buy Foreign currency. So again, the very helpful girl informed me that I could purchase Foreign money at “Window 1” at the official rate. The rest of the story is simple to understand and someone with a little bit of acumen would understand what was about to happen. At the end of my stay at the Bank of Uganda I left the place with my 450 dollars for my ticket but in fact I had paid exactly 100 dollars for the ticket. Cheap travelling is certainly possible if one uses a bit of imagination! I admit it borders the limits of (dis)honesty but based on a shrewd mind! I have no regrets especially that over the years I did manage to help a good number of colleagues who were in need of some liquidities to live their lives!

After the Amin years, things would slowly stabilize but the immediate result was that the Governor of the Bank of Uganda, a former top official at the World Bank, had to put in place severe restrictions for financial transactions. The good thing was that the new government had opened the door to free foreign exchange transactions that enabled the country to see an inflow of hard currency supporting the economy. But at the same time, the money had to regain its real value compared to other currencies and slowly the exchange rate stabilised around 2500 UGX per US dollar, some ten years ago (now at a lower rate of 3600). This has, of course, an immediate effect on personal savings, but with a bit of imagination and trust in the local economy it is possible to have your savings yield sufficient returns so as to make your life more comfortable. After so many years, the Ugandan economy has regained its strength and can withstand even difficult moments where and when it is assaulted by various outside forces. It has taken years to get there but I think we can now say that the banking system in Uganda has reached maturity and can easily compete with major financial institutions in the world. I recall one year, a friend of mine who was a senior banker in Belgium, visited us and showed real surprise at the quality and efficacy of our banking system especially compared to other countries he had visited.

But those early years were “interesting”, to say the least, and I often chuckle when I think about the possibilities that economy offered us.

But those early years were “interesting”, to say the least, and I often chuckle when I think about the possibilities that economy offered us.But those early years were “interesting”, to say the least, and I often chuckle when I think about the possibilities that economy offered us.

Categories
Life in Uganda

INTERSERVICE

I think that sometimes you have to be somewhat mad to do what we did in Kampala all those years ago. During the Amin years – and a special blog post will follow about that – everyone knew that things became scarce and difficult to get. In parishes, social centres, health places, schools, and other places, essentials were getting really hard to get, and something had to be done. Well, imagination is certainly not something lacking with young people, and one Max Gmürr, a Swiss White Father, had the idea to set up a centre to collect essentials needed in difficult times. This centre was intended to serve the whole of Uganda. It started with simple things such as soap, sugar, flour and so on; if Government could not provide these, why not do it ourselves? Soon the success of the operation received the backing of the bishops, they even took ownership of it (maybe they saw a fat milk cow!), and things got moving and prompted our friends of the Church of Uganda and the Muslim Community to set up similar services. But I do not think they achieved what Max realized in a short period of time.

The whole idea was to purchase goods in bulk, store them in a central place and open the doors to those engaged in missionary work of any type, to come and purchase, at cost price plus 5% for service charges, all the goods they wanted. Soon the operation became big and received the name “Interservice”. It was located at Nsambya Catholic Secretariat and was housed in containers – all very practical and efficient. But Max died unexpectedly at a young age and his successor was my friend Peter, who I mentioned in my third blog. Over the years he would bring Interservice to the level of a huge enterprise. One of the many things we could obtain through Interservice were cars. In fact, over the years he served the organisation, Peter imported some 1500 cars, all destined for hospitals, mission posts, schools, and other social agencies. The question was then “How do we get the vehicles from the Kenyan port to Kampala?” So Peter, with all his imagination, asked some friends, myself included, if we would accept to go to Mombasa and drive a vehicle back to Uganda for Interservice. Why not? It was an occasion to have a few days off at the cost of Interservice! I recall one occasion where we were five of us travelling to Mombasa, where we stayed in a Swiss owned hotel in the city centre and Peter was there to welcome us and ensure that all paperwork for the travel back was in order. So one morning round 8am we set off in caravan with six vehicles, two VW minibuses and four pick-up vehicles. One night stop in Nairobi and the next day off to Kampala via Malaba border post. Arriving there, it was Peter’s job to ensure all paperwork was cleared so that we could move on. Disaster! Getting into the customs office at the border, Peter realised he had forgotten the logbooks of the VW vehicles. There was no way to get them across the border. What shall we do? Simple, he said. You all get into the cars that are cleared and drive to Kampala, and I’ll go back to Mombasa for the papers needed at customs, and will arrange to get some of you back at Malaba in a few days to collect the two cars. Imagination and creativity were certainly not lacking with those guys! I went back to Malaba a few days later and there was Peter all smiles waiting for me to drive back to Kampala.

But these journeys were not without hazards. We were, after all, in the Amin years and one never knew what was in store with the guys of security. We had never had any trouble but who knows what could come next! On this return journey all went well until we reached the dam bridge in Jinja. There was an army road block checking all vehicles. The line was about a mile long and we sat there in the heat waiting for our turn. After half an hour and not seeing any movement, we decided to turn back and go for a coffee in a nearby petrol station. Bad move on our part! One of the army guys had seen us turning around and in no time a military car caught up on us. Insults and threats flew around: “you are not allowed to turn back. We will arrest you and maybe you will be shot!” Not so pleasant prospects! That was the first time in my life I had an AK 47 gun on my tummy, and I can assure you that it doesn’t feel good! Peter negotiated and after some talk and a “word” of thanks for not harming us nor the vehicles, we were allowed to have our coffee – which was horrendous – and then proceed to the back of the queue en route for Kampala. An experience for sure but we vowed never to see it repeated.

All in all, Interservice was great: I got our water pump for Mushanga Parish and two motorcycles for the catechists. It was a marvellous service for all those working in Uganda. Interservice continued operating well into the early nineties and the Brother Francis took over as in charge of supplies. Peter was recalled as general treasurer of the White Fathers and moved to Rome. I am sure he would have preferred to stay in Uganda and in fact after his years of service in Rome and later in Belgium, he returned to Africa, this time to South Africa, to become the treasurer of one of the South African dioceses. Great man who did help many with a smile and heaps of kindness!

When I came back to Uganda in 1993 to start work at Uganda Martyrs University, we were short of essential supplies and Interservice came in very handy for us all. One day in Kampala I decided to go to their office and ask if we could get some basic things such as tinned food and other items. Francis took me around the stores and told me to pick what I needed. There were some boxes of Canadian tinned beef and he gave me two; soap, cooking oil, and other basic items were also at our disposal. God bless them for this magnificent assistance. With my Canadian tins and other supplies, I got back to Nkozi and proudly we opened one for our supper. My God what was this? Tasteless, full of oil and tomato sauce, meat was an absent item in the tin! We just could not eat it. I tried to give some to the dog who reluctantly put his tongue to it and ate it with very far away teeth. Well, generosity in service sometimes has negatives and we had to live with it! Nonetheless, we very very grateful, even for the tinned beef that the dog eventually finished!

Next time I will tell you about the banking services in Uganda over the past years. I can promise you an interesting read!

Categories
Life in Uganda

IBANDA HOSPITAL

When missionaries first came to Uganda one of their priorities was to be heavily involved in social work and the health sector was no exception. In 1968 when I arrived in Ibanda Parish, a big project was in the making: building a hospital for the region: Ibanda Hospital. The project was funded in its entirety by Misereor, a German Catholic Charity. Misereor also submitted a series of plans for the project. Being a rather curious person, I could not resist going down to the site to see what was brewing. In fact, I found an existing small medical centre: Ibanda Dispensary, run by Irish sisters. We have already mentioned them earlier when extolling their hospitality and culinary skills! Over the years they would show some more skills, I can assure you.
The project leader was a stout Swiss lady called Sylvia Probst, a member of the community of Irish sisters. She was a nurse herself and endowed with very developed organisational skills, not always orthodox but certainly result oriented! She had been given the task to see the project through to completion. To maximise her work and make it effective, she drove a small green Volkswagen beetle and always gave the impression that she was in a hurry, or at least the engine always seemed in a hurry. You could hear her coming from far away as the engine was revving at over-speed. We found out quickly that she was driving keeping her foot half-way down the clutch, thus creating the sound of a sports car! We took the habit of calling her “Mama Clutch!”. No wonder the clutch of the VW had to be replaced rather quickly!

Apart from that, she was a most charming person and could join any joke worth a good laugh. She showed me the plans of the proposed buildings, and I must say they were impressive. A series of low buildings inter-connected by covered passage ways and spread over a few acres, gave the impression of a friendly place where it would be good to be treated for any ailments coming your way! The hospital was putting up a theatre block, a private ward, two general wards, a maternity ward and a surgical ward. Good planning I thought, but then what did I know about medical facilities? Of course equipment would have to be purchased, a thing Sylvia had already done by that time, but first the buildings had still to come up. So she contacted various contractors and bidding started. At the end of the day, one came out first and was awarded the contract, Mr Charles Kimbowa. He had been to the site a few times to assess what would be needed for the works. On a Monday morning he arrived on the site with three workers, a pickup van and his old car. With them they were carrying an old concrete mixer, two wheelbarrows and some hoes and pickaxes as well as some shovels. And they had come to build a complete hospital! I learned very quickly that building could not start as he had no capital to buy raw materials such as cement, sand, stones, iron bars, bricks, and other building materials. Haggling started with Sylvia, but by the end of the day the contractor had won and received 50% of the total contract money. He must have been a very happy man as soon new equipment arrived on the site as well as a new car for the contractor, a car he proudly showed round! Building started within the same week. It was an opportunity to give work to the local people, and each morning dozens of young men joined the contractor and his team. I must say things went well and the foundations of all the buildings were dug in no time; concrete and a slab was cast, and so the rise of buildings could proceed, at least so it was thought. I had a hunch that something was not right and with Brother Francis we talked it through. One Sunday morning, we walked to the site and looked at it all. It seemed fine but something told us that things were not in the right place. We looked at the site plans and started measuring and soon we found the problem. We got a pickaxe and started digging at a corner of one building and found that the first course of blocks was a full foot outside the foundations resting on loose soil. The concrete slab had been cast a full foot and a half outside the foundations, so as to give it more strength, said the contractor! Strange way of looking at construction! We told Sylvia, who did not seem to worry and told us that the contractor was a professional and we were amateurs! We insisted on digging more places and the same conclusion came up each time: the buildings were being built outside the foundations. Sylvia had no choice but to ask the contractor to dig up his slab and peg the foundation correctly so that walls would rest on solid ground. This was done with great reluctance but in the end everybody was happy it had been done. In no time the buildings came up, and after eight months the full site was covered with beautiful buildings and the finishing touches remained as the main task to be completed. One year and half after the start of building, the official opening could take place, and an extraordinary person, Brigid, a fully qualified registered nurse and midwife was installed as the first matron of the hospital. She would run the place for some years with an iron fist and a broad smile and give to it a reputation worthy of the best.

But there was still a problem. In the mind of the people the hospital was not yet fully inaugurated. In their minds some medical practice had first to take place and they were convinced that the first patient who would undergo surgery would not make it. We tried to shrug this off but the people remained adamant. The Irish sisters running the hospital had obtained from a Dutch organisation that two doctors would be provided for the next four years so as to give time for one of theirs to join the hospital team. And believe it or not, the first casualty of the hospital was near to happening. One evening a young woman was brought in in a pitiful state. She had drank a full glass of “Gamatox”, a disinfectant used for cattle bathing. One of the doctors having examined her had detected a serious swelling in the abdomen and it was decided to open her up to see exactly what was wrong. The hospital did not yet have an X-Ray machine at the time! So surgery took place but the condition of the patient was such that she did not make it. Outside the hospital a good number of people had gathered, aware that the first surgery was gong to take place. When they learned that the patient did not survive, the rumour went round that this had to happen and that now the place was safe for medical care! What a rough start for the doctors and the hospital team! But things calmed down very quickly and normal hospital activities became the order of the day. In the weeks following this incident some seriously big crates arrived and a brand new X-Ray machine was delivered together with theatre lights. Two technicians had come to install the X-Ray machine. The theatre lights had to be installed and with Francis we used our imagination to fix these lights in a most solid fashion above the operating table and fixed to the roof structure. It all worked well and we were proud of our achievements! Ibanda Hospital was up and running and the region had top quality medical facilities at its disposal. Soon the place would be flooded with patients and the adjacent Dispensary would serve as the screening centre for the hospital. Good work had been done and one of the main aspects of missionary work had been put into practice: bring charity into social activities! All of us were very happy.
As time went on the place was eventually handed over to Ugandan sisters and local doctors. But the basis had been solid and so it was time to pass on the baton. Still today the hospital stands proud in an area which has grown exponentially in population; medical attention is, and remains, a service necessary in the region. Well done to our Irish sisters and their vision and hard work!

Categories
Uncategorized

IBANDA HOSPITAL

When missionaries first came to Uganda one of their priorities was to be heavily involved in social work and the health sector was no exception. In 1968 when I arrived in Ibanda Parish, a big project was in the making: building a hospital for the region: Ibanda Hospital. The project was funded in its entirety by Misereor, a German Catholic Charity. Misereor also submitted a series of plans for the project. Being a rather curious person, I could not resist going down to the site to see what was brewing. In fact, I found an existing small medical centre: Ibanda Dispensary, run by Irish sisters. We have already mentioned them earlier when extolling their hospitality and culinary skills! Over the years they would show some more skills, I can assure you.
The project leader was a stout Swiss lady called Sylvia Probst, a member of the community of Irish sisters. She was a nurse herself and endowed with very developed organisational skills, not always orthodox but certainly result oriented! She had been given the task to see the project through to completion. To maximise her work and make it effective, she drove a small green Volkswagen beetle and always gave the impression that she was in a hurry, or at least the engine always seemed in a hurry. You could hear her coming from far away as the engine was revving at over-speed. We found out quickly that she was driving keeping her foot half-way down the clutch, thus creating the sound of a sports car! We took the habit of calling her “Mama Clutch!”. No wonder the clutch of the VW had to be replaced rather quickly!

Apart from that, she was a most charming person and could join any joke worth a good laugh. She showed me the plans of the proposed buildings, and I must say they were impressive. A series of low buildings inter-connected by covered passage ways and spread over a few acres, gave the impression of a friendly place where it would be good to be treated for any ailments coming your way! The hospital was putting up a theatre block, a private ward, two general wards, a maternity ward and a surgical ward. Good planning I thought, but then what did I know about medical facilities? Of course equipment would have to be purchased, a thing Sylvia had already done by that time, but first the buildings had still to come up. So she contacted various contractors and bidding started. At the end of the day, one came out first and was awarded the contract, Mr Charles Kimbowa. He had been to the site a few times to assess what would be needed for the works. On a Monday morning he arrived on the site with three workers, a pickup van and his old car. With them they were carrying an old concrete mixer, two wheelbarrows and some hoes and pickaxes as well as some shovels. And they had come to build a complete hospital! I learned very quickly that building could not start as he had no capital to buy raw materials such as cement, sand, stones, iron bars, bricks, and other building materials. Haggling started with Sylvia, but by the end of the day the contractor had won and received 50% of the total contract money. He must have been a very happy man as soon new equipment arrived on the site as well as a new car for the contractor, a car he proudly showed round! Building started within the same week. It was an opportunity to give work to the local people, and each morning dozens of young men joined the contractor and his team. I must say things went well and the foundations of all the buildings were dug in no time; concrete and a slab was cast, and so the rise of buildings could proceed, at least so it was thought. I had a hunch that something was not right and with Brother Francis we talked it through. One Sunday morning, we walked to the site and looked at it all. It seemed fine but something told us that things were not in the right place. We looked at the site plans and started measuring and soon we found the problem. We got a pickaxe and started digging at a corner of one building and found that the first course of blocks was a full foot outside the foundations resting on loose soil. The concrete slab had been cast a full foot and a half outside the foundations, so as to give it more strength, said the contractor! Strange way of looking at construction! We told Sylvia, who did not seem to worry and told us that the contractor was a professional and we were amateurs! We insisted on digging more places and the same conclusion came up each time: the buildings were being built outside the foundations. Sylvia had no choice but to ask the contractor to dig up his slab and peg the foundation correctly so that walls would rest on solid ground. This was done with great reluctance but in the end everybody was happy it had been done. In no time the buildings came up, and after eight months the full site was covered with beautiful buildings and the finishing touches remained as the main task to be completed. One year and half after the start of building, the official opening could take place, and an extraordinary person, Brigid, a fully qualified registered nurse and midwife was installed as the first matron of the hospital. She would run the place for some years with an iron fist and a broad smile and give to it a reputation worthy of the best.

But there was still a problem. In the mind of the people the hospital was not yet fully inaugurated. In their minds some medical practice had first to take place and they were convinced that the first patient who would undergo surgery would not make it. We tried to shrug this off but the people remained adamant. The Irish sisters running the hospital had obtained from a Dutch organisation that two doctors would be provided for the next four years so as to give time for one of theirs to join the hospital team. And believe it or not, the first casualty of the hospital was near to happening. One evening a young woman was brought in in a pitiful state. She had drank a full glass of “Gamatox”, a disinfectant used for cattle bathing. One of the doctors having examined her had detected a serious swelling in the abdomen and it was decided to open her up to see exactly what was wrong. The hospital did not yet have an X-Ray machine at the time! So surgery took place but the condition of the patient was such that she did not make it. Outside the hospital a good number of people had gathered, aware that the first surgery was gong to take place. When they learned that the patient did not survive, the rumour went round that this had to happen and that now the place was safe for medical care! What a rough start for the doctors and the hospital team! But things calmed down very quickly and normal hospital activities became the order of the day. In the weeks following this incident some seriously big crates arrived and a brand new X-Ray machine was delivered together with theatre lights. Two technicians had come to install the X-Ray machine. The theatre lights had to be installed and with Francis we used our imagination to fix these lights in a most solid fashion above the operating table and fixed to the roof structure. It all worked well and we were proud of our achievements! Ibanda Hospital was up and running and the region had top quality medical facilities at its disposal. Soon the place would be flooded with patients and the adjacent Dispensary would serve as the screening centre for the hospital. Good work had been done and one of the main aspects of missionary work had been put into practice: bring charity into social activities! All of us were very happy.
As time went on the place was eventually handed over to Ugandan sisters and local doctors. But the basis had been solid and so it was time to pass on the baton. Still today the hospital stands proud in an area which has grown exponentially in population; medical attention is, and remains, a service necessary in the region. Well done to our Irish sisters and their vision and hard work!

Categories
Uncategorized

PECAMEGA and MOTOR SPORTS

It is not easy to describe the type of life one has in Uganda especially when not everything is always rosy. But I would like to describe a few places and adventures I had during my first years in The Pearl of Africa. This period, from 1967 to 1982, was full of surprises with happy, sometimes difficult moments.

I must say that my colleagues in Mbarara really knew how to organise themselves, and at the diocesan headquarters there was a place called Pecamega for “Petrol, Carpentry, Metal, Garage”. To run such a place, which was at the same time a vocational institution, you need guys who have creativity and a lot of initiative, as their budget was rather limited. We have already mentioned some of them: the little man who had told me on my first day in Mbarara that Uganda was not the place to be, Louis who was as tough as a concrete block and never compromising but eternally complaining, and Karl, the artist, architect, and wood worker. Those three guys ran the show: the little man did the metal part comprising plumbing and electricity, Louis was in command at the garage and welding, and Karl led the carpentry department. The three of them had developed something unique and one could always go and ask for some assistance whenever needed.

I must say I always felt most welcome when I met them in their little world. The little man gave me lots of ideas to improve on electrical installations and did I use these over the years – in fact, I am still using them today! Plumbing tips were also part of our encounters. But I learned most from an old man who had been an initiator of Pecamega and was now living at the central administration: Brother Bonaventure. He was in his late seventies at the time and was responsible for the post office of the place. He himself was an architect, and over the years had developed various projects in the vast area of Mbarara Diocese. But he had his own ideas and never accepted that someone else would take his place in the carpentry workshop. But then with age there were certain things he could no longer do and eventually he had to give in. He showed me plans of his achievements, and what I noticed very quickly was the standardisation and monotony of his designs. All the shops he designed for Indians in town were the same: front veranda, front shop with an office and storage behind. This could be expanded at will depending on the space available. Practical but not very creative! I think that was the problem he had with Karl who, as an artist, wanted things to be lovely but also practical. And Karl was an exceptional wood carver which Bonaventure was not. He did one great thing for me though: he gave me a copy of his plans for a septic tank with all the measurements to cover the needs of the place where the tank was to be built. I would use this in Mushanga and other places as this item, needed for improved hygiene, was often non-existant. Louis showed me how to service a car, and over the years I developed rather good skills in that field, doing most of the services of my car, during the Amin years, myself. In another blog I will recall these years!

So, here was a place, full of activity and buzzing with enthusiasm, which was the practical heartbeat of Mbarara Diocese: Pecamega. God knows how we should thank these guys for the work they did. Karl especially did give me a hand in designing all the churches and schools we developed in Mushaga Parish. They were all unique on their own, practical and artistic. Doing all this work with Karl taught me many things in the field of construction and I will be eternally grateful for his generous sharing of knowledge and expertise. With all the young men and women trained by the three, in no time the region had a good group of skilled workers, and one could easily see the influence they had in the region: buildings were coming up based on sound plans and engineering knowledge. Kudos to those pioneering guys!

Strangely enough, my contacts with Pecamega led me to motor sport, rather strange, no? In town I had met, on recommendation of Louis, a very good Pakistani mechanic who was a fanatic of motor sports. We got talking about it and especially the East African Safari. In no time he convinced me to get involved in one way or another, and soon I was invited by the manager of Grindlays Bank, Mbarara, where I had my bank account, to attend a meeting related to the East African Safari. The hobby of this kind manager was motor sports, and naturally I got involved! The idea was simple: I could be in charge of the control post of the Safari, located at Ibanda where I was living. I accepted with pleasure, and on the set date I pitched a small tent along the road. We had to indicate to incoming cars that they had to stop and have their road log stamped, as proof they had passed the place. As from 9pm that day the cars started flying in, having their road card stamped and, zoomed off again. This lasted till 10am the following morning when the last car passed the control post. Rather difficult to win the rally when you pass the post some 13 hours behind! With a friend from the Secondary School of Ibanda, we manned the post the whole time. The inspector of the Safari, who became a very good friend, came by round 3am to see if all was well. Mission accomplished and I was happy to have been of service!

But my Pakistani friend did not leave it at that. As I had just purchased a new car, a Datsun SSS, he asked if I would be willing to enter the rally, he would be the driver and me the co-driver. I politely refused, arguing that I was not willing to put my new car at risk as yet. He understood and found another person willing to join the adventure. But for me and my friend from the secondary school this was not the end. I had to service my car and so we decided to drive around without an exhaust pipe. Well, all hell broke out on the hill and just like teenagers we zoomed around only to be told very rapidly and firmly by the matron of the hospital that we were noise polluters in the region. We looked at each other, had a good laugh, and fitted the exhaust back onto the car. It was great fun for us but maybe not for the others! Anyhow this made life more interesting and gave us a good break from daily routine. At the end of the day, missionary life can be full of the most unexpected things!