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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
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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!

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Life in Uganda

MUSHANGA PARISH … VISITORS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MUSHANGA PARISH giving new life!

I think that this blog may be disconcerting for some readers, as I will embark in some theological thinking to remodel the way pastoral work could be done. Although we did face the scepticism of many, the bishop included, when embarking on a fresh thinking of our work, nonetheless, we did (I think) make a difference.

When you are two people to run a place the size of Mushanga Parish with a population of some 20,000 souls, it is difficult not to ask for the assistance of others. Of course, our two older colleagues were there, and one of the older men showed an openness to new ideas, which for us was a breath of fresh air. The fact that he was praying so as to allow us do our running around was a boost in what we did and thought. The other one continued his grumbling and reproach towards all what was new. He never said a word about the different experiments we made!

We were convinced that a shift in our activities was necessary and that the people to be consulted first were our immediate collaborators: the catechists. Their role became crucial and could not be ignored. Richard had already organized the 12 centres with the man responsible for Mushanga centre as the chief catechist. They met every two months for three days at Mushanga, the main centre. Two days were dedicated to thinking out the pastoral work and its implications for the community, the last day was spent discussing administrative matters. I was amazed at the sense of togetherness of all present and the discussions we had were frank and open. Nobody was more important than the other, and the chief catechist did have a real sense of collaborative work. Our task as pastors was made so much easier with such people willing to see the face of their communities rejuvenated.

It was during these bi-monthly meetings that an older catechist, in fact the dean of catechists, came up with an idea which would develop into something major that would give to the life of the parish a totally new dimension. His question to the meeting was: “could we not have our main centres, 12 of them, turned into Eucharistic Centres?” For him the idea was, if we could have a permanent church where the Eucharist would be kept permanently and distributed by the catechist, it would give to the community a greater sense of unity and togetherness. The seeds were sown for a radical change in our attitude towards the understanding of what a Eucharistic community would be. It was no longer a distant something which people would share occasionally, but it became a daily opportunity for each one to receive a boost in their christian lives. With Richard we sat down and discussed all options offered to us. It became clear that we had to rethink what our centres were and turn them into living christian communities, not just places where we would come occasionally and dispense teaching and sacraments. This would mean educating people, starting with the catechists. We were aware that we could not go ahead unless the Bishop agreed. We set out to convince him of the correctness of our thinking and mapped out the whole project. Catechists were trained in some sound theology of the Eucharist. They were given hints on how to behave and were made aware of the importance of their role as leaders of these communities. To our great satisfaction and joy the Bishop agreed to our ideas on condition that he himself would have some part and role in the setting up of these centres. At the end of the day, it turned out that his role consisted mainly in being physically present to install catechists in their new roles and ensure that the physical location of their community Church responded to what he considered as essential to vouch for his approval. I was amazed at how fast the catechists grasped our thinking, and soon all our centres were working hard to prepare their places of worship to receive a constant presence of the Eucharist and for the catechists to become the “ministers” of their people. Each centre set up a special committee to organize the physical infrastructure, another to arrange for the collection of funds to support the physical infrastructure, and another to teach the people the meaning of Eucharistic Centres. This gave us new wings and we were constantly on the road visiting our centres and talking to our people. I never before encountered such a sense of a living community – and with enthusiasm to burn! After one year of hard work, we could feel something new was coming, and the desire to help grew day by day. This first step was of immense importance, and seeing the enthusiasm of our people convinced us that we were really on the right path.

We called in the artistic and architectural skills of Brother Karl from Mbarara, himself an architect and artist, to help planning the 12 centre churches. They needed to be modified and embellished and turned into real places of worship. But my goodness did we run around the places as the requests from the centres were coming in each day for assistance and ideas. And so after a year and half of hard work and reflection, doubled with a serious dose of prayer not only from our old man but from of all of us, the bishop agreed to inaugurate and bless the first Eucharistic Centre of Mushanga Parish. The others would follow in the years to come. It was a day of great celebration and joy, and it is not often that you see such joyous crowds flocking to their church. New life was given to the place, and a permanent presence of the Eucharist in the centre made it a place attracting people for prayer and worship. The catechist realised his responsibilities and always made sure people would appreciate and understand the importance of the change in their local community. One of the major benefits of this setting up of Eucharistic Centres was that the sense of community grew and would definitely be the basis of all future developments. We have recorded some of our activities in a small booklet “Eucharist and Community” published by Ggaba Pastoral Papers. It is probably as rare as hens’ teeth these days so you are not likely to find it in any library!

However, taking such a major step was not without possible mishaps. Our catechists knew their role well, and we had provided them all with all the necessary training and tools to fulfil their duties. Each had a special satchel to hang round their neck when moving with the Eucharist to be taken to the sick or old people. Unfortunately, one day a catechist could not resist stopping at a drinking place and he put his satchel in a box tied to the back of his bicycle as he went into the “pub”. It did not take long for some kids to see this strange box and try to open it. The catechist was alerted by a well-intentioned fellow who told him kids were playing with his “box”. He came out just in the nick of time before the kids had helped themselves to the little wafers! News of the incident soon reached the head catechist who took swift action and our good catechist had his licence removed promptly. This was a good lesson for all of us and stricter security measures were taken. There are always risks when starting something new, and for us it was a steep enough learning curve!

In 1973 my friend Richard left for Canada for a holiday and I was left alone to cater for the place. But there was no doubt that I had at my disposal all the necessary tools to make the parish flourish. In fact, I was not alone but had 12 close collaborators to work with in this really marvellous venture. The fact that I suddenly became the man in charge gave me wings and over the next two years I would develop all our centres into small eucharistic communities. We would bring changes in the way our sacramental life would be lived and we introduced in our rituals a host of local traditions to make these rituals more than an external act and inspire the people about the value of their own cultures. There were so many elements in traditional practices which could be taken into our christian liturgies and we did not hesitate to use them to the maximum. Traditional music, dance, and new rites were introduced and suddenly we saw our people coming nearer to their Church and feeling that they were really part of it. We stressed especially the sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Marriage in our liturgical reforms. But I did know that pushing all these aspects of christian life were only the tip of the iceberg and that much more would have to be done.

One anecdote deserves mention here. We had organised a youth camp at the parish headquarters, and on the closing day we had invited the bishop to preside over the liturgy. I was in for a surprise and never expected such a reaction from the man who had given his approval to the changes we had introduced. He was welcomed into the church by a group of traditional dancers and placed on a traditional throne. During the whole liturgy we could hear a soft beating of drums accompanied by traditional dances, and when it came to the offering of gifts he was overwhelmed by bananas, fruits, chicken and goats. Proudly a young calf walked into the church and was brought to the bishop as a gift to thank him for having accepted that we move forward. I can still remember his face when seeing the animal walking flanked by six male dancers! Well, one could not let a poor animal run freely in the church! He hardly acknowledged the gift and proceeded swiftly with the rest of the liturgy. Without a word, having forfeited his lunch (which was a real feast!) he left the place and jumped into his car livid at the scene he had witnessed. I was summoned to the diocesan headquarters and told by the bishop himself that such expressions of gratitude (?) were unbefitting for a church. I tried to explain but to no avail! But it did not stop me in my enthusiasm, and “stubbornly” I would continue to implant the church into a readily fertile African soil. Years later, when I met him informally, he confessed to me that he was proud of what we had done and that being escorted into the church by a group of dancers was one of the high points of his episcopal career! So much for pride! But I had made my point, and Mbarara diocese slowly became the place to be where there was no fear of experimenting with our expressions of faith. What I have drawn from this experience is that when you give your people a chance to express themselves freely, even with a bit of guidance, you can move mountains.

But in 1975, big changes would mark my life and I was asked to go and teach at the National Major Seminary in Ggaba. There I would have an opportunity to use my parish experience in my teaching, and finally use my legal training for these young men preparing for ministry. My academic career got a real start in August 1975. But before moving to the big smoke of Kampala, I had the joy to receive my parents at Mushanga. In a next blog I will recount this epic visit. Watch this space!

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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.

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Parish life … Part 2

Rwera Parish

So there I was in a new place with a very specific mission to accomplish: putting the finances right! Rwera Parish is situated at the other extreme southwest end of the diocese. In fact it is at exactly the opposite side of the diocese compared to Ibanda Parish. Rwera parish is a long strip with a small population of about 10,000

Before going there I had to pass to the diocesan offices and meet the big man Roland, who handed me new accounts books. I looked at him with a puzzled air and said “what do you want me to do with that?” “Just fill them in based on what you will find in your new place, and bring them back to me. Good luck!” Luckily I had used these books earlier in Ibanda when doing some accounts and knew more or less what to do. My brief was: write the accounts for the last five years – the time when the parish priest took over – and compare with the statement I was given by Roland which is dated five years back.

When I arrived at the place the parish priest, Gaston (a fellow Belgian) welcomed me and showed me my quarters. In fact, the layout of the place was the same as Ibanda but much smaller. Someone must have been making the same plans for most of the parishes of the diocese! From the word go, he told me that his accounts were not in order, and knew that I had come to put some order in the business. Obviously news travelled fast! He handed me the key of the safe and some books which were supposed to be books of accounts! Then after a cup of coffee he told me, “I will be absent for the next ten days as I have business in my maize fields” I had no idea what he was talking about and would find out later what he meant. So, before lunch that day, I found myself alone at table and took a typically kinyankole meal: cooked bananas, some ground nuts and some green leafy vegetables. Although I would get used to this type of food on a daily basis, I did use my little culinary skills to tell the cooks how to improve the meals so as to have some variety. Fruits would become part of my daily diet, especially pawpaw and pineapples.

There I was, alone and wondering where to start! The reasonable thing was to organise my living quarters in a comfortable way, simple but practical! Then a brief tour of the place was a must; I have to say that compared to Ibanda Parish, I had landed in a very small place indeed. A parish residence built for three people, a small primary school and a hall for parish meetings and teaching people preparing for either baptism or marriage. Otherwise, there was nothing but silence and a green environment with a small road leading to the main road twenty five km away, which could bring me to Mbarara or Kabale at the extreme south western part of Uganda in Kigezi district.

Luckily I had brought with me a crate of beer and a bottle of Uganda Waragi (the local gin) So on my first evening I enjoyed a little gin and fruit juice as an aperitif, and a bottle of beer with my meal. I was indeed in heaven! As darkness sets in rather early in Uganda, and the parish had no electricity, I was in bed around 8pm on this my first day. Water was a scarce commodity, so I dutifully filled my water jug for my morning ablutions. I must say that I did not sleep very much that night and by six thirty the next morning I was up and ready to lead the church service at 9am. This happened in the presence of three old ladies and a few children. Not an impressive audience I must say! As I had no idea how the parish was organised, I asked one of the cooks who the catechist was. Soon an older gentleman appeared who tried, with a limited knowledge of English, to explain how the place was organised. He insisted talking in English, and it took me some effort to convince him to speak his own language even if it had to be simple and straight forward, and he did so thus helping me improve my knowledge of Runyankole. It became very clear that the man Gaston was not present very often and left the work to the catechist. This would give me my first taste of being responsible for a parish, but let it be clear I too left most of the responsibility to the catechist!

After this first initiation I went to visit the nearby primary school where the headteacher asked me bluntly: “What can I do, my wife has given me five daughters but does not want to give me a boy!” I tried to explain why this was so with my little knowledge in matters of genetics, but he rejected my explanation, and informed me that if this was the case he had no choice but to take a second wife who would give him a son. He did indeed take in a school girl as his second wife, and she became pregnant rather soon. She too gave birth to a healthy little girl! This was not to the liking of the man who dismissed the girl immediately as useless. What he did afterwards I have no idea, but he was transferred to another post very soon after this event. These little experiences taught me quite a lot about the way some people think and it would be for me an eye opener in understanding the mentality and way of thinking of our people.

I decided then that the best thing to do immediately was to get going on writing the accounts of the parish. I found stacks of papers: invoices, bills, receipts and other information which appeared to be related to finances. I dutifully sorted them, put them in chronological order and set out entering all things in my new books of accounts. I have to tell you it took a lot of patience to go through all this scattered paperwork. After some three weeks, I reached the end of all my paperwork, and, to my horror, I found that the parish had a shortfall of more than 20,000 USD. Where this came from was another matter of enquiry. It transpired that my good friend Gaston had mixed up his own funds, the parish funds, and the diocesan funds. My task now was to pass on my work to Roland who simply told me, after a quick glance at the books, “Good work! You go and tell Gaston that he should find the money to refund the parish for the shortfall!” This was easy for him to say, but why should I have to do it? But then, maybe I could pass on this bitter pill with a smile and the assurance that he was not going to be executed for it! So one day, when Gaston was at the parish residence, I went to see him in his office and laid the books in front of him. His immediate reaction was: “How much do I have to pay to settle the bill and reconcile the books?” I told him but had no time to explain; in fact, he did not want to know, and he made sure that the necessary funds were transferred to the diocesan treasury immediately. I have never had such easy settlement of financial matters! Gaston went on with his work in his maize fields which turned out to be a huge cooperative. He had with him some fifty farmers who had put their finances together, and set up a cooperative which turned out to be very effective and productive. Good for the man who considered this as his main task as parish priest in a small place in Ankole. But then, why not! I never had a chance to visit the co-op! In fact, he used it to instruct people on the values of human life and society, and he certainly did have an impact on the people he met. I doubt he passed on any knowledge of financial matters! I did not know that even finance management could be part of my life, but I had learned something precious: be careful when dealing with money. Always be transparent in disclosing matters financial! This knowledge would come in handy later in life.

My stay in Rwera would not be very long. After eight months I was due for leave, and flew back to Belgium for some rest and family reunions. My sister was getting married and I was happy to be part of the celebrations. On my return to Uganda six months later, I was placed in another parish where I would find a totally different life, much more hectic, but extremely rewarding. Next time!