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.

Life 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.

Life in Uganda


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!

Life in Uganda


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!

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!

Life in Uganda

MUSHANGA PARISH … setting the scene

After a few months of holidays at home with my family, it was good to be back where home really is, in the field, by October 1971. My friend and new boss, Richard, was at the airport and welcomed me warmly, informing me that we would drive back to Mushanga, my new home, immediately without stopping – in total some 250 km. He had brought my car and asked me to drive back the whole way. I did so and was very cautious on the road and serious about security. His reaction was “you can see he has been driving in Europe!” No ill feelings about that!

Mushanga is situated in the geographical centre of Ankole and spans a radius of about 25 km. The roads are good, and there is electricity and a regular water supply. Remember water is most important as I had already found out! At a later date, the telephone company proposed to install this useful instrument, but this never materialised due to the political situation in the country!

The residence was the biggest in the whole diocese, situated on top of Mushanga hill. It was a double storied structure with six bedrooms on the top floor and one large sitting room on the same floor, with a terrace all round the house. On the ground floor there were four offices, a dining room and kitchen all covered by the top floor terrace. Outside there was a smaller building with a large room and a small dispensary where one of my colleagues was helping some old ladies with their various ailments. His medicine consisted mainly of ointments and potions! Behind the house there was a nice garden with flowers and a banana plantation with a variety of fruit trees.

In total we were five living there. There was the boss Richard, a Canadian with whom I had lived in Ibanda, and it was a pleasure to have him there as the leader of the pack. Then there was the dean of the Missionaries of Africa in Uganda, Pierre Etcheverry, aged 92. His name betrayed his origins! He had been living in Uganda since 1910 and had once been back to France for holidays in 1929. During one of our many conversations he confided to me it was not worth the trip to Europe as what he saw in France just did not appeal to him at all. That big city called Paris was so overcrowded that it was difficult to move around freely. So he had taken the decision to stay in Uganda and enjoy what was on offer in The Pearl of Africa. He must have enjoyed everything if you looked at his age and physical condition. One day when I returned from a visit to a village, he told me: “Listen, you run around a lot visiting people and have no time to pray. I will do the praying for you; you run around visiting people!” He was an unbelievable man, and over the years I would learn a lot of common sense from him.

Then there was a Dutchman, Peter, aged 76. He was a teacher and linguist, and had written a fair number of books on the Runyankole language and customs. Mushanga had become his place of retirement. He would become my language teacher taking over from my Irish friend in Ibanda. In fact he would correct my written work and help me improve my syntax and grammar. But at the same time he was at loggerheads with another guy, a Frenchman of the same age, who was also a linguist. They did not agree on how to write the language, how to interpret things etc. Their relationship was limited to written notes sending rebuffs from one to the other and vice versa. It was not always easy dealing with the man, but there was not much discussion either because he did not like how times changed. “I learned things the proper way when I was a student and, today, you people cannot be right.” He spent most of his days in his vegetable garden, from which we rarely saw the produce! I often wondered what he did with the veggies. The last resident at Mushanga was another Frenchman, George, who was in charge of the pastoral centre of the diocese, assisted by two diocesan sisters. Of course I was number five in this pack!

Mushanga parish was certainly the most developed place in the whole diocese, apart from the diocesan headquarters. There were two houses with religious sisters: one Canadians and the other diocesan. The former were residing in Mushanga as their house was the headquarters of their community in Uganda. Their hospitality was something many would relish! We were always welcome and their place was such that you immediately felt at home. The second group, diocesan sisters, were helping the parish with teaching catechumens and doing social work. They also helped at the pastoral centre. Another house was the residence of two members of the Grail community. They ran a dispensary – a real one this time! – and had a social centre where they co-ordinated many activities in the region. A big primary school was run by the diocesan sisters, and a secondary school was manned by the local clergy. In fact, these were very good schools and were appreciated by many.

And at the centre of it all stood the parish church. A building some twenty years old, built by a Canadian who had developed a brick yard and made all the bricks for his buildings: church, residences, and the other buildings on the hill. This church is the biggest building in the diocese apart from the cathedral and could accommodate some 700 people without any problem. It is impressive when it is filled, and the acoustic was excellent as people raised their voices in song during services. Over the years services would become even better as we introduced – not always in line with the wishes of the Bishop – some changes in our Sunday liturgies which made them friendly, more culturally appropriate, and family oriented.

My work was clearly spelled out by the boss, and it was with enthusiasm that I embarked on this new life: looking after the various schools in the parish and the youth movements, Xaverians, the local brand of scouts, and girl guides. My first priority was to get to know the place and during my first week I took my car and drove round all the centres the parish was running, an easy job as the parish residence was in the geographical centre of the parish itself and no single place was more than 20 km away! It gave me an opportunity to meet people and introduce myself. Thanks to my Irish friend in Ibanda I felt sufficiently at ease to talk to people and not feel like a stranger. What a good feeling it was to be able to do this! It also gave me a better idea about the needs of the parish, and soon new ideas started to bubble up and the discussions we had with Richard were the seeds of our activity in the parish. In fact we were the only two with parish duties: the old men had a life time to contemplate, while the fifth had his work cut out at the pastoral centre. Our Dutch friend made gardening his main work, coupled with constant complaining about the evolution of the Church in a direction he thought smelled of socialism!

Our meetings were frequent and our discussions proved to be fruitful as we worked hard to develop the place in the way which we thought best for all. It also meant that we could give free range to our imagination and creativity. This would become the heart of our activities and will be the subject of a later blog.

However, this idyllic life was crushed when, one morning in January 1972, we heard the news that President Obote had been toppled whilst on a trip to Singapore for a Commonwealth meeting and replaced by his Army Chief of Staff, Idi Amin Dada. A new era was about to start one that would eventually bring the country to its knees. This also would push us to even greater creativity and imagination, as our reliance on local resources increased as time went by. I will write about these years of Amin another time.

Life in Uganda

Parish life … Part 1

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

Ibanda Parish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading about my exploits!

Life in Uganda


To explain myself fully here I have to go back to my student years in Canada in the early sixties. Part of the training was the acquisition of some manual skills, and I was assigned to the electrical workshop of the house. Later I would also work in the book binding section and the shoe shop! All useful things to learn and these skills served me well over the years. Three of us were under the supervision of a professional electrician and we were plunged immediately into practical tasks from small electrical repairs to full house electrical installation. All this would prove very useful but I always remember that electrical works still remain a risky business! I remember well one day cutting a cable with a pair of pliers, having forgotten that the cable was live! The results were not very glorious and sparks were part of the exercise!

When I arrived in Ibanda in 1968, I saw for the first time a stand-by generator. I had no idea on how the thing worked but the principal of the college had a good time enlightening my ignorance! Now given the state of electricity provision in Uganda a generator is a great thing to have, and they have been part of all my places of residence in the future, be it Nkozi or Kampala.

My first major experience with electricity was in 1972 when I was posted to Mushanga parish in the west of Ankole, Shema District. A country rich with a bounty of greenery, mainly plantain, but also with a vast variety of vegetables and fruits. The house we were living in was a storied building constructed by a Canadian some twenty years earlier. It was comfortable, with large rooms and offices, as well as a marvellous sitting room on the first floor. At that time, electrical installations were still mainly surface installations. One day, returning from a visit to a nearby village, I reached home to find my colleagues sitting outside on the front porch in a state of disarray. I must admit one of them was 93 and the other 78, so I had a vision of total disaster when I saw them. What had happened? With all the phlegm of a good Basque, my 93 old friend simply told me the house almost burned down! I asked them what they had done to avoid total disaster and he said “nothing, we waited for you to return! Just go and see for yourself”. My worst fears were quickly appeased as the “fire” comprised the total cremation of the electrical system in the house, but no other damage. Black lines marked the walls where electrical wires had once been fixed. What happened? I could not get any explanation and my two friends were simply sitting there waiting for me to proclaim my verdict. My answer was very simple: “Well since everything is burned, we will have to replace it all and add some securities!” My older friends agreed and continued their conversation as if nothing had happened, not realising that for some time there might be no electricity in the house. For the next two weeks, each day after returning home from work, I set about reinstalling our electric system, and soon all was back in good order and condition. Another good work completed! This time I made sure the fuse box was strong enough to support our needs.

My little experience with electricity would be tested again years later in Nkozi (the place on The Equator). The supply of electricity by the company, then called UEB, was anything but regular, and I had many discussions, not always very amicable, with the area manager of the company. Having gone for some fundraising in 1994, I was absent for about four weeks, and during that time the power supply to campus was interrupted at regular intervals: there was more darkness on campus than light! For those who had remained on campus this could not continue and Herself phoned the area manager expressing her disappointment and frustration at the situation. How the man knew I was absent is still clouded in mystery. Candidly he asked her “when does he come back?” “Tomorrow” was the immediate answer. Within an hour power was restored to remain so for some good time. Was this the power of mind over matter!

In any case this situation could not continue, and it was decided that two major things were necessary. First, we needed a strong generator to manage the supply of electricity on campus. Second, the campus grid, lines, and poles, had to be seriously inspected and where necessary replaced. In fact we ended up replacing the whole grid with a completely new net of overhead lines. The transformer of the company was an old rotten box, too weak to supply a university campus, and it needed urgent replacement. The generator was purchased by ourselves and installed by the university electrician who did the needful to connect the campus through a switch-over box. For some years we would be saved the problems of lack of power as our generator supplied the place with all the needed power. As for the grid and transformer, this took some serious discussions and negotiations with the company. After months of haggling and hassling, they relented and gave us a new transformer, sufficiently powerful to cover our needs. We would cover the expenses of the campus grid. This work was done by a private company owned by the manager of the state electricity company! Hmm!

Once this work was done the new transformer was delivered and installed, not a big deal. But in the eyes of the company and government these things had to be publicised to show the good will of both. This was done one sunny morning when the deputy Prime Minister, who was also Minister of Energy and a founding member of the university, appeared on campus for the formal inauguration of the “transformer”, which was installed on new poles and over a new control room. There was no problem to inaugurate a transformer as the exercise consisted simply in pressing down the switch so that power could pass through the university grid. But the good man thought this was not sufficient and in the most serious manner he stood in front of the electricity poles holding the transformer and delivered a speech in the direction of the new equipment about the benefits of electrification. We were two members of the university administration, the Registrar and myself, plus the Minister for this “important” ceremony! I looked a bit silly standing there with my Registrar but then any little step forward does indeed call for recognition and publicity. Hurrah, we had a stable supply of electricity and this was the main thing for us. Herself documented it all on a small camera.

Looking back at what had been achieved and how my little knowledge of matters electrical had been helpful, I was proud that we had been in a position to see things move forward. Later we installed another generator to provide stable supply to our Internet and IT equipment, independently from the main supply. This again was a major step forward. Plus we had to secure all the equipment with “Uninterruptible Power Supply” (UPS) capable of supporting all electronic equipment. So the university had at its disposal some top facilities which would remain top of the range for the years to come. After we left the university in 2006, a new university engineer was appointed. I learned later that the man convinced the university administration that all overhead cables, connectors, and lightning conductors needed to be replaced! Now how do you explain that new equipment needs to be replaced after a few years when it had served well? The fact is that weaker cables were installed, the lightening conductors disappeared, and all the equipment we put in just vanished into thin air, so I was told! I know that today all these efforts we made have been worth it, as one day my successor at the university told me “UMEME, the electricity company, is now the standby to the university generator!” How things have changed over the years!

Just a quick story before I finish here. One day, the campus plumber was doing some work at the bathroom of my house. He had forgotten that the electricity supply was earthed in the copper plumbing piping. A loud bang was heard for many metres around and the young man came streaking out of the house wailing “the electricity has killed me!” Herself, being of a pragmatic nature poured him a large brandy, and lo and behold, he rose from the dead in no time at all. Somewhere down the line (pun intended) there may be more about electricity in the country but that’s it for now.

Life in Uganda

Water … part 2

And now, more watery issues, but this time a fair number of years later – the inbetween things will come up in due course. In 1993 I moved to a small place called Nkozi, situated on the Masaka Road and right on the Equator, to set up Uganda Martyrs University. I had been in Europe for some ten years teaching in universities and doing some work as the Chairman Judge of the Catholic National Church Tribunal of Belgium. Now by accepting this challenge, and seeing an opening for my dream to return to Africa come through, I received mixed messages from friends and family. Some thought it was sheer madness, others thought it was generous, while others thought it was a no-goer and could not yield results. I will tell the full story in another blog. As to why I had spent ten years in Europe, that too is a story for another day!

We had been given an old National Teachers’ Training College at Nkozi, which had been started in the first half of the twentieth century. It was totally dilapidated following the various not-so-glorious wars in the country after Independence, and there we were, Herself and myself, looking at the place and wondering what next. One thing which appeared to us as essential from the first day was “water”. The place had an old Braithwaite steel galvanised square water tank at the top of the hill – again a place built on a hill! – which from a distance looked fine but once you were close to it the picture changed completely. Holes and rust had become common feature of this reservoir. So we needed to repair what could be repaired and see what next! Tar does marvels in these circumstances but it can be a bit messy when applying it. Then came the most important question: where would water in this tank come from? We were informed that in the valley below in the swamp, there was a concrete tank in which swamp water was stored and then passed through an alum filter into another steel tank, cemented and in dubious state. To say that the water was of high quality was an understatement. If you have ever seen dark brown smelly swamp water, there it was. An old diesel pump did its best to bring some of this liquid up the hill and through gravity it came back down to the campus. As we were temporarily residing in the “doctors’ ” house at the nearby mission hospital, we had running water, well at least some of what came down from campus, as well as a rainwater tank behind the kitchen.

Now in June 1993 we were in the dry season which went on for quite some time, and, as a result, this rainwater tank was empty and extremely smelly. We peeped inside and found all sorts of little creepy creatures which we tried to flush out with our brown smelly water as well as possible and then wait for some rain to come down and bless us with some fresh supply. Well this came at the end of July, a sudden storm of mighty description came down, and Herself could not find a better way to have a fresh shower but to run into the garden in Eve’s attire, with a bar of Sunlight soap, and enjoy the moment to the full. She found it exquisite and certainly refreshing. The rain water tank filled half and this gave us some reserve for our domestic use. But in the meantime we still had at our disposal that brown liquid from the swamp which could also be used for some domestic purposes. But what water could we drink? The first thing to do was to acquire a water filter and boil some of this rain water and fill the large blue metal filter which came all the way from India. At least it gave us drinking water of a kind. Bottled water was not a commodity at that time! But believe it or not, human imagination is something exceptional. Herself came from a home where wine making was a tradition, and with fresh passion fruit juice, she made the most exquisite white wine, which we hoped to enjoy some time later. A later blog will tell you the amazing (and funny) story of this wine!

As we had no masses of rainwater, Herself was asking “how do I do some laundry?” Well to be honest I had no “clear” answer, and the only possible solution was to use the incoming water which, after some time, cleared up to a light brown colour. I do not have to tell you the state of the tank on the ceiling in which some water from the university tank had been stored: on cleaning it you could easily get one inch of muddy silt. So this cleaning exercise proved to be useful. But on a Saturday morning herself decided to do some laundry. The bathtub was half filled, some soap poured into the water and bedsheets and towels put in the tub to soak. After some time herself decided that the best and most efficient way to wash the stuff was simply to get into the bathtub and go for a walk! The rubbing of feet with the linen and the water should make things clean! Well things worked and after some serious walking the sheets were wringed by us both (not an easy job) and hung outside in the sun to dry. I must say that the result was not too bad at all.

As we were building the Vice Chancellor’s residence of the upcoming university, we decided, after the experience of laundry walking, that a washing machine would not be a luxury any longer! But that murky water could not be used permanently and so grew in our minds the “Nkozi Water Works” plan. Three things seemed necessary right from the start. First, find a source where good, clean, drinkable water could be tapped from. Second, find a better and more developed way to store the water, and last, find a way to move the water from point A, the source, to point B, the reserve tanks and then bring it back down to the campus. With the university foreman we started scouting the valley and searched to see if we could find some good water source but our search was not yielding an immediate result. Somebody who trotted with us in the valley, suggested wisely that we ask a person who could do some dowsing to see if water could be found anywhere in the valley. So a good old man with his Y-Rod was found and he started walking the valley. It did not take him long to find places where water could be tapped. In fact, as we were in a swampy valley, I was not surprised at the speed with which he found his way round. Various spots were marked, but now came the problem: how do we get to the water and pump it up the hill? I suggested to dig holes till we got water and tap it from there. I should have known that just digging some small holes would be of not much use for a university campus and its surroundings. Somewhat naïve of me! Our foreman knew a guy who was a professional water driller. He was contracted to assist in our search for water. Machines were brought in and installed in various spots and drilling started. Now if you have ever seen drilling for water, you know it is a rather messy job. Muddy water flies all around and if you are not careful you come out of the exercise well plastered with a coat of muddy something all over you! But the man knew what he was doing, and after some twenty meters depth he hit rocky and sandy soil and informed us that there was water! How could he know that? Experience I suppose, but at his first attempt to get some water up, he lifted a bucket full of dirty sandy water. “No problem” was his answer, “we drill deeper and will certainly find good clear water”. The guy was right and after another ten meters he hit clear water. How he knew the quantity of water and its quality will remain a mystery to me but he assured us that there was plenty of it! I suppose that under the circumstances, the best thing was to believe him and wait till the water came spouting out of the ground. Another three bore holes were sunk.

Satisfied with the work, I drove to Kampala to a company called Davis and Shirtliff hunting for submersible water pumps. Now here I had some experience, so I thought I would not just buy the pumps but also the electrical cables, pipes and other gadgets to make it a fully operating pumping system. The reasonable thing to do was to ask the company to come and install them. In this way it would be done professionally and a warranty would be in place! It seemed I had learned something from past experiences! Two pumps would be sufficient, they declared, and the other two wells were capped for later use. After another couple of weeks of work, new water pipes were moving up the hill to our water tanks. In the meantime a new concrete tank was under construction to contain 250.000 litres. A good reserve for a university campus! A jolly plumber with an inclination to imbibe some of the “hard stuff”, put new water pipes down from the tanks to some of the houses. Now this was forgetting that with the height of the tanks and the quality of the new pipes, that old equipment might reluctantly accept this bounty of clear liquid. When we opened the new line to our house, well what had to happen happened. The taps just flew of the wall and floods were part of an experience not to be forgotten so soon. But it was limited due to the quick action of our plumber who capped his new line and set out repairing the damage done.

But in the end it was a successful enterprise: Nkozi had running water. Over time this project would be extended to the nearby hospital, the parish, and some of the shops and schools. “Nkozi Waterworks” had been set up and at home both of us could lift a good glass of some precious liquid to celebrate this event. I recalled that I had learned the hard way, from my first bush place, that water can be scarce and is precious as gold! Then we thought further, and the fact that rain was not an impossible thing in the area, and with the multitude of roofs on campus, it was decided to dig five ten thousand litre PVC water tanks in the ground behind the main building which had become the central administration. All being linked, this gave us a reserve of 100.000 litre of rain water. A small pump saw to it that the water could be lifted into small tanks on the ceiling of the building when the need arose. Happy people all around and the health of all protected in a better way than before! We could be proud of what had been achieved. Herself was the first one to acknowledge that clear and clean water was better than the brown heavy liquid we used to have, and a clean-water shower was the first thing on the agenda!

But that was not the end of my water experiences. Throughout my recent years in Uganda, water has continued to absorb a lot of my time and attention. More anon. Next time I will talk about an element not always in good terms with water, electricity, an item that also cost me a lot of hard work and heartache!

Life in Uganda

Water … part 1

After my first experience of bush life, I realised that an essential element in our survival was “water”. The fact that I had to walk outside with my bucket to get some rain water was not the issue. The real issue was the storage of the water. I had been wondering why the water tank in Bubangizi was leaking and soon found out how the tank had been constructed: a series of galvanised rings welded together, clad with chicken mesh, and then plastered with cement. It surely looked strong but water and cement are not always friends and corrosion joins the fray rather soon. Over the years I saw many such water tanks rotting away and being of not much use! So what to do?

When I arrived at Ibanda, I noticed that there were water tanks, some in steel, others in cement, others in bricks, but there was also running water in the house. Where did this come from? The tanks did not collect rain water but got their supply from a spring at the back of the house up the hill (Ibanda was built on a slope against a rather high hill!) So with one of the staff of the catechists’ school, I call him Jeff here, we trotted up the hill in search of the precious liquid. Some hundred metres behind the house and up the hill and at a height of about 40 meters, we found a beautiful spring spewing water out of the ground and flowing down the hill where it went its own way in various directions. At the parish residence someone had had the good idea to capture some of the water and direct it into an underground tank. A small hand pump pushed the water into a tank on the ceiling hence supplying running water. The same exercise was repeated in different locations around the place. But my question was: “How do you know the top tank is full?” Just pump and when the water comes down on your head you will know the small tank is full! Good answer but not the most practical way of verification!

So could something be done to get the water supply more steady and regulated? With Jeff we decided that PVC pipes might be the answer and on the top tanks valves could be placed to stop the continuous flow of water. So we proposed a project to the diocesan treasury for the purchase of pipes and its fittings, and we would do the work. It was approved rather quickly and so we set out on the “Ibanda Water Works” project with a small budget at our disposal. In fact, we had just the money for the equipment, the rest had to be supplied by ourselves! This was no problem as we were full of enthusiasm and desirous to provide a useful service to the whole community of Ibanda. I am not going to describe the fun we had doing this, but after a few weeks we were proud to see the fruits of our labour: the Teacher Training College, Dispensary, Secondary School, Parish, and surrounding shops now had a regular water supply. Gosh were we proud to say “We did it!” I suppose even today the water supply at Ibanda is still a reality, and what is now a hospital (the former dispensary) benefits from “our” waterworks.

This first go at a regular water supply would be with me for all my years in Uganda. I realised very quickly that water was much more important than electricity or any other necessities or goodies one may think of. So a few years later when I was posted at Mushanga Parish, along the Fort Portal road on the way to Queen Elisabeth National Park, I would get involved again in “waterworks”. At the parish there was a regular water supply taken from a well down in the valley. I mention here that most parishes in Ankole are built on a hill dominating the area, an old habit from the first missionaries at the end of the nineteenth century which proved to be a stroke of genius. Now in Mushanga there was a submersible water pump, which worked when the gods were on its side … and the national electricity company would supply power to the place. Already then in 1973 we had electricity shortages, so when it became really bad a number of years later it was no longer a surprise to see the entire county’s lights dim away for prologued periods of time!

But back to my water pump. Obviously something had gone wrong with the machinery and the only thing to do was get the pump out of the well. I had no clue about the depth of the well and with some workmen we started lifting the whole thing. First one pipe of 20 feet, then another one and then another one again and there hanging at the end of it a rusted pump which did not show promising signs of life. What to do? One of the guys said: “remove the pump and take it to Mbarara to a garage, and they will fix it!” In my naivety I agreed and the next day I was in Mbarara at my favourite garage where the manager looked at me and with a grin said: “we repair cars here, not pumps!” Of course I should have thought of it earlier and not make a fool of myself! So I went to the diocesan headquarters (in another blog I will talk about this), and gave the pump to a man called Louis who seemed to be knowledgeable enough about pumps. He looked at it, undid the cap and said simply: “You will need some new bearings for this machine and mind you they are not available here. In the US you can get them but then who will pay for this and bring them here? Not me in any case!” Not very helpful at all! So I approached another colleague: architect and woodworker. I mentioned him earlier and it is with him that we would do lots of good and sometimes crazy things! I told him my story and he said: “Send a request to Kampala to Max and he will get you the right pump”. So I did what he suggested and believe it or not one week later I was in possession of a brand new water pump with an electrical switch and all the needed paraphernalia. I do not know how I thought I could install the beast myself as I had no manual, and so I just stood there looking at the equipment: a beautiful piece of machinery to my eyes!

So back to Mbarara it was, as there was no phone connection, and the question was sent to Max. Back came the answer: he had forgotten to connect the switch but if I could bring it to Kampala he would do the needful. Now driving four hours for a water pump switch seemed rather demanding but luck was on my side and someone volunteered to take the piece to Max. He was back three days later with all the connections made and happily I trotted down to my water well and installed the pump, made all electrical connections and pushed the button to start the pump. Nothing happened until I realised that we had been cut off from the electricity grid: just one more power cut which would become our daily burden in the years to come. When finally power returned, I rushed down the hill and pressed my precious button and there it was: after less than a minute clear and clean water gushed through the pipes up the hill to the house. Hurrah, we did it again! So there I was congratulating myself on this achievement and receiving all sorts of accolades from colleagues who knew how to appreciate water. Was I proud of myself! And all this with a PhD in Laws on my CV, a very useful thing to have in such demanding circumstances!

But I had not forgotten my experience of Ibanda, and in one of the villages of Mushanga, Buhimba, there was a small waterfall bringing water down the hill to a nearby village. Would it be possible to make this a source of regular supply to the people? Relying on my recently-acquired skills and experience, I had no doubt I could do something. And so, with the catechist of the place, we decided to get things going. We bought some PVC pipes, sand, cement, and some bricks, and set out constructing a small dam at the source of the water. It was up a hill and not very difficult to channel the water. Happily we were digging down the hill, until a loud shout rang out, “What the hell do you think you are doing here? This is my plantation and who gave you permission to dig it up? I will go the the chief and he will deal with you appropriately!” Well the guy did go and the chief was there in no time. Luckily for us the man was a man with good common sense and he saw the benefit of what we were doing. He suggested that we should branch of somewhere on the slope and bring water to the land owner’s place. We agreed and immediately set out to work again and soon everyone was happy to have clean water down in the valley. Another good work done and people really seeing the benefits of nature’s bounty. To make things even better the Minister of Natural Resources came to commission the water plant. My gosh was this good! The one major lesson I learned from all this was that I should always check out if what I plan to do will not disturb others and try and keep my impulsive character under control. At least I had learned something! More about water in the next delivery!