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.


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!

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!

Life in Uganda

Runyankole … Part 2

So there I was after a dull Christmas in 1967 with a blank offer from the Bishop to choose a place where to go. I would do this as soon as an opportunity came up and this, in fact, happened mid-January 1968 when I attended a meeting in Mbarara with colleagues from the diocese. I met new faces and some came across to me as more friendly than others, so I told them my story. There is no need to say that many chuckled at my story and one of them, Edgar, a Canadian, told me “Why don’t you come to Ibanda?” I had no idea where Ibanda was but the friendliness of the guy convinced me to give it a go. As the boss was at the meeting, I told him my plan; his answer: “When you feel like it, you move”. Oh, if everything in life was so simple.

As we arranged for my move, Edgar told me that he could send someone to pick me up the following week in Mbarara. And so the next week found me sitting in the car of another Canadian, Richard, and with my little suitcase, my golf clubs, and lots of smiles. We were on the road to Ibanda. On the way, Richard explained lots of things, most of which I forgot, but looking back now, Ibanda became the place which took up an enormous space in my heart. In the years that followed, the actual place helped me really build up a love for the country and its people.

On arriving at Ibanda, I was met by Edgar, who was the parish priest, together with another young man, German by birth, called Franz. They were the team of the parish. My surprise would grow even more when I was told there were more good guys around. So I was told that there was a Teachers’ Training college where three White Fathers worked, a Catechist school with another two, a secondary school with five Canadian Brothers, and a dispensary with three Irish sisters. Now this was a big difference with my bush place in Bubangizi. I had landed in a new world and was determined to maximize my stay here, and try to master Runyankole as quickly as possible. By the way I never received a letter from the Bishop telling me I was appointed to a definite place; he just told me – after two months – that he was satisfied with my performance and could stay there if I so wished. I was quick to accept this generous offer. I would stay there for three years!

But I was there to study the language and a colleague from the Teachers’ Training college, a good Irishman called Tim, offered to take me under his wing and teach me the intricacies of the language. He was a born teacher, and day after day he coached me into the entrails of the language with charts, grammar notes, vocabulary and many other paraphernalia. But it paid off and slowly I started getting the hang of it. I was not dumped into a crowd to read a text I did not understand but was simply told to go out and try my “tongue” with some kids I might meet. Now this really paid off, as kids are eager to share their knowledge without fear, and doing so with a big white man was for them a kind of wonderful achievement. They did not mind if I made mistakes and they were happy to remind me of the correct version of things. They could laugh at my mistakes, and did so without any fear of reprisals on my part. I enjoyed it, and day after day, once I had gone through my classes with Tim, I met my little friends and rather soon (after two weeks) I could say a few words which made sense. This was the point where I realised that it was possible to master this intricate Bantu language. It would take me a much longer time to become fluent, but here I must admit what the little man had told me, “talk to the people”, was in fact the key to the knowledge of the language. And talk to the people I certainly did. At this point, lest you think I speak the language of the country, I should remind you that there are more than forty-two recognised languages in Uganda, Runyankole being one only!

One day Edgar told me: “I want you to go into the bush for five days and visit families and get more acquainted with the language, customs, and habits”. But my question was: “How do I get there?” as I had no transport. So again good fortune came across my way and Edgar told me “You have to buy yourself a car, otherwise you are totally useless here.” Now this was a challenge on many levels, but I was guided to a garage in Mbarara, which I got to using public transport. Negotiations went smoothly with the Indian garage owner. I was told he would give a huge discount and I believed him of course, not realising that the discount was re-calculated in the final prize of the car. Within 24 hours I had purchased a small Peugeot 204 which was delivered in Ibanda the next day. How I paid for it I have no idea but my debit account in Mbarara shot up by a fair amount! But then, I was still naïve enough to think things would work out for the best! So two days later, being the owner of a new car, I packed the gear which I had bought in Mbarara, gas stove, pot, plate, cutlery and a mug, as well as my little mattress and a sleeping bag, into the boot of my car. Roland had indeed been right to tell me to buy all this!

Together with the head catechist of the parish we drove to a place named Kazo. Now I have never seen such a place: flat green savannah land and cows galore, at least a hundred cows per person! What I learned soon after is that I was going to the land of Kaguta, the father of Museveni, who would appear on the Ugandan scene many years later. After one hour’s drive we arrived at a small place with three grass huts. The people had awaited my arrival – how they knew it I have no idea – and once I had greeted everyone, (boy, was I proud to have done this on my own!), we were assigned one hut each as our residence for the week. The bathroom was in the open behind a grass partition. From there onwards things went smoothly and I walked my legs off in the real bush, talking to people, visiting their places, and learning so much about the culture and customs. The food they cooked for me was really good and luckily had I brought with me my cutlery as most people simply eat with their hands! This really was a brilliant experience never to be forgotten.

After my five days, exhausted but happy, I drove back to Ibanda and just like a kid I could not stop telling everyone about my adventures. Tim was happy to listen to my stories, and over and over again he switched to Runyankole and I could understand and answer him! He would continue to coach me for the coming months with two sessions a week. This does not mean I knew the language at the end of the two months, but the ice was broken and over the years I improved my fluency in Runyankole. I must admit that even after fifty years I have no problem to switch to this beautiful language. So much for my initiation to Runyankole: it was not easy but it paid off!

These were the early days of my Uganda journey; much, much more was ahead of me, some of it great, some of it good, and some of it not-so-good (and parts downright awful), but I had made a start. In the next stories, I will pick out the main threads of my story. I hope you will enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy remembering them!

Life in Uganda

and now …. Runyankole

Well, I had my first night at Bubangizi: a rather sleepless one on my small steel bed and a three inch foam mattress. When round 6am I woke or better got out of my slumber, I realised I had forgotten to bring in some water to shave and have a quick wash. So out I went in the semi dark and filled my little basin and did the needful to appear as presentable as possible.

Breakfast was at 7am and I went to the dining room where I found my two colleagues, the little man and my classmate, already enjoying what was on the table. I was informed by the little man that this morning we would set out on the intricacies of the local language “Runyankole”. Suddenly reality set in, and I prepared myself for this first language encounter by downing my breakfast, which was anything but a five star one (the Blue Band and the coffee did nothing to raise the stars!) I realised I was in for a lot of hard work. The little man asked me what materials I had to study with; proudly I announced that I had a grammar and a dictionary. “What are you going to do with those?” was the return question. “You have to go out and talk to the people, and then check in your grammar and dictionary for what you heard”. What way was this to learn a language?

Anyhow, after this light meal, I was summoned to the office of the little man and with my dictionary and grammar I duly sat opposite him at his desk. “Now tell me what you know about Runyankole” he asked. I had no idea what to answer but said simply “you tell me what I have to do and how I have to do it”. “As I told you, talk to the people and check it out in your grammar and dictionary! I have asked one of my catechists to come and help you. He is waiting for you on the veranda.” That was my first “lesson” with the little man, but at least the practical part was to follow immediately. Festo was indeed waiting for me on the veranda and greeted me profusely in Runyankole; I had only a big smile as my answer. In broken English he told me that he was going to teach me the language the way the people talk it. “You will see it is not that difficult”. I had been told by Roland to have a little notebook and pencil to jot down the words I could “hear” and then find out the meaning. So Festo, in good teacher mode, told me first how to greet people. I must admit that I heard some sounds with various pitches but could not make any sense or meaning out of it. Again he said: “Oraire ota?” which meant “How did you sleep?” I tried to jot this down in phonetical script and repeated it. After some multiple attempts, I managed to get something out which resembled the question very vaguely. The answer to this question, or “greetings” as I learned later, was “Ego”. Now this was easy and I just wondered if there was any link between Runyankole and Latin! But of course I realised quickly this was not possible or certainly a far fetched idea of mine! My teacher went on how to say good bye to someone. It was “oraare gye” or “osiibe gye”, meaning good day and good night. All this took us the most part of one hour and I was happy to have learned some words but at the same time wondering when I would be speaking more. But Festo did not give up on me; he got his Bible out and took a reading from the liturgy of the next Sunday. He showed me the text and told me to practice reading it as much as I could so that next Sunday – three days after having arrived at my bush place – I would be reading in public! So there I was at the end of class one with some serious homework on my hands.

At lunch time the little man asked me how the class went, and I told him I was happy to have heard some sounds that are supposed to be Runyankole. He then asked me to tell him what I had learned and dutifully I took out my little note book and read what I had scribbled down. I tried to read it but the little man stopped me there and then and said: “listen if you cannot learn these simple things faster, how are you going to learn the language?” My friend Peter simply watched and smiled, but did not utter a word in my support. How can you let your friends down in such a way?

The next morning I met Festo who again greeted me, but I could not make anything out of what he said. He smiled and patiently repeated what he had taught me the day before, and to my surprise it started to make sense to my ears! The sounds were no longer just noises but sounds at variant pitches. Was I starting to get the language? The test would be the next Sunday! By Jove, did I practice reading the text I was assigned to read. I took my own Bible to try and understand what I was reading in Runyankole, but no semblance of commonality appeared to me. But the days were moving on and soon, too soon, came Sunday 17 December 1967. I will never forget this day, I stood there in front of a packed Church with a bible in my hand and attempted to read something which was supposed to be the “good news”. I have no idea how I ploughed through the whole thing but I could see heads moving in all directions, some smiling, some wondering, some disapproving. But to make things worse, the little man was standing at the back of the Church. After Mass he came to me and said “good attempt at reading but I doubt people understood anything!.” For next Sunday you will prepare another reading with Festo and then we will see what to do next!

I struggled through the week with my reading and on 24 December 1967 I made my second attempt at reading Runyankole in public. I will not tell you how I fared, but after this event the little man told me flatly: “You do not learn very quickly, I have no time for you any longer. You will have to try other ways.” At that moment what he said on my arrival came flooding into my head: “I did not ask for him”. But good grief, did he think I could master Runyankole in one week and a half? I do know I am rather good at languages but I learned these in a rather more orthodox way! “Tomorrow is Christmas”, he said, “and I hope we will have a nice day. If you wish you can join us in the evening for a game of bridge with some colleagues from a neighbouring parish.” I said I would be delighted to join. It would be one bright point in a rather disappointing week! But in my head I knew that things would have to change, and other ways and means had to be found to learn the language. I resolved to go and see the Bishop and ask for another placement and find someone who could teach me properly.That resolution settled me a little.

And so Christmas Day came and Christmas Day went, with a game of bridge which I was allowed to attend as only four players play the game. What a disappointment! And so it was on 27 December 1967 I took a local bus to Mbarara and went to see the boss. Luck was on my side, and I found him in his office. When I knocked at his office door and was invited in, he looked at me in astonishment and after a minute burst out laughing: “Did the man get rid of you?” What did he mean by that? And then I realised that Roland had told him about our reception at Bubangizi. “Not to worry; let us go to my house and enjoy a cold beer, it is, after all, Christmas time!” So there I was invited to the bishop’s palace, a modest bungalow in the middle of greenery and next to the cathedral. A comfortable house where I met a man I would work with for years to come: brother Karl. He will certainly be the subject of one of my random thoughts.

We had a most pleasant chat and at the end of the best part of one hour, the bishop told me: “As I told you I cannot give you instructions on where to send you as you have not satisfied the requirements for an episcopal placement, that is: language competence. So if you can find a place where you would like to go, be my guest”. This decision was to be one I will never forget, and indeed it marked the rest of my life in Uganda! With this in mind I travelled back to my bush place and in the evening I informed the little man that I would be moving to another place once the bishop had decided where to put me. Now this was twisting the truth slightly, but I could not muster the courage to say that I had asked to be moved. All this for the next time folks, but that evening we did enjoy a cold “Christmas” beer on the veranda!

Life in Uganda

… and on the third day

After my “interview” with the bishop, I knew that my introduction to the world of the “bush” would not be long coming. After breakfast on this third day, the big man Roland told me that we would go in town this morning and do the needed shopping for the move to my new life in the bush. There was some trepidation in my mind about this because I did not have much in the line of possessions, and at that time didn’t even have money to buy anything at all. How on earth was I going to do my shopping and settle my bills? But the big man was reassuring and told me not to worry; the treasury will cover your bill, he told me, and even open an account for me at the diocesan treasury and put some little money on it. So before going to town for shopping, I was first summoned to the office at the end of the corridor, and within a few minutes my name was recorded for posterity in a big ledger; then I was handed the sum of one hundred Uganda shillings in ten shilling notes. This was my first debit note in Uganda! Now this massive financial input represented the equivalent of about fifteen United States Dollars. I looked at the notes and thought to myself: am I rich or am I en route to looting the shops in town!

Once these financial formalities were completed, I got into the diocesan treasury vehicle – an old Volkswagen beetle – and we set off to the town of “Mbarara”. I had no idea how far we would drive or how big the city was. But I soon realised it was not far, about one kilometre, and the town was in fact a single main street surrounded by buildings on both sides, called “Ddukas”. I noticed on the way that there was a police station, a post office with its post boxes, and two banks, yes two: Grindlays and Uganda Commercial Bank, as well as a Caltex petrol station. A really big town! The population was about 20.000. I was told that it was a big town which was the headquarters of the region called Ankole where I had landed. Later, I would get acquainted with Ankole having moved around quite a bit over the years. But today all was new and together we wandered into one shop; it seems it was the biggest and nicest one in town, called “Aziz Virani.” Entering I could smell these smells that seemed to be coming from lands far away. On the counter was an burner where smoke welled up and graced us with a scent I had never before smelled. I fact it was not bad at all. At the counter a nice Ugandan gentleman greeted us and asked what we wished to buy. I should remind you that at the time, by law, a Ugandan had to be in the shop and deal with customers! The owner, Mr Virani (an Indian), was sitting in a back office and came out to greet Roland as they knew one another rather well. I suppose that when you are the finance man of a diocese you keep good relationships with the business world around you! I also learned later that the Indian shop owners spent most of their time in the back of their shops counting the cash which came in! During the time of Amin this would be even more true!
Not having the slightest idea what I needed, I left the talking to the big man who asked for: a Runyankole dictionary, a Runyankole grammar, a plastic basin, two plates, two knives, two forks and two spoons, a plastic mug, an electric torch, two pairs of bedsheets, two towels, some soap and toothpaste and a plastic bucket. On top of that he asked for a small gas stove and a small cooking pot. It seemed that I really was going to the bush / camping, and my whole household equipment was bought within fifteen minutes. He paid for it all and when I asked how I would refund him he simply said do not worry I will debit your account with us! So much for quick finances! Then came the shock: we entered another shop, very small in comparison of what I had seen but packed to the roof with all kinds of hardware stuff. Here he ordered a mattress, 2 inches thick, six feet long and three feet wide. I asked what this was for and he simply told me “you have to sleep somewhere”. Now I was convinced I was going to be setting up camp in a place where the language would be pumped into my small brain. After about half an hour in town, I was informed that I should go pack my suitcase and that we would set off for my new place, Bubangizi, immediately once this was done. And so around ten o’cock on that 13 December 1967 we drove off to “the bush”.

I must say I enjoyed the drive even if it was bumpy and rough: there was no tarmac after about 40 km out of town, but the landscapes we crossed were simply beautiful. I had never expected to see what I did. Great expanses of savannah, then green banana plantations and green hills. All very lush and pleasant to the eye. We drove for about one hour and after some bad patches of road, we arrived at the top of a hill, where three shops stood proud and in the distance a church and a building in red bricks which looked new to me. “We have arrived” said the man and brought the Beetle to a halt in front of the house. Once the dust had settled we stood there, me with my little suitcase in one hand and my golf clubs in the other, Roland with a big smile waiting for someone to turn up. It did not take long before a little man in his early seventies came out and greeted Roland profusely. He looked at me in a way which did not bode well for the future. I introduced myself and so did he.

The conversation between the little man and Roland ran something like this.
Little man: “Welcome Roland. I hope you stay for lunch.”
Roland: “Yes I will be happy to stay.”
Little man: “And who is this golf player you brought with you?”
Roland: “Michel is coming to Bubangizi, where you are asked to teach him the language”.
Little man: “But I did not ask for him to come here”
Roland: “Well he will stay here until you are satisfied with his progress in the knowledge of Runyankole”
Little man: “But I have no room for him to stay and have no time to teach the language as we are preparing for Christmas”
Roland: “Well after lunch I have to drive back to Mbarara”.

A long, somewhat awkward silence followed. And then, out of the blue and from the back of the house, another younger man appeared, and to my greatest surprise it was an old classmate of mine. We had studied in Canada together and then he moved to Ireland where he studied geography. How he had landed here in the bush with a degree in geography was a mystery to me, but I suppose he too was learning the language! But at least I had someone to talk to and reminisce on our past years together. In the coming years we would have loads of experiences together but these will be told another time.

In the meantime we were invited to lunch and after a brief “siesta”, Roland went back to Mbarara, leaving me behind with my little suitcase, my golf clubs and my newly purchased possessions. These did not seem strange to my “hosts”. I timidly asked where I could put these down and was shown to a small store, 3m by 3m, where there was a steel bed and a small table and one chair and a small window with a wooden shutter giving a view of the front of the place, namely the three shops. Now I understood the purpose of the purchases we had done in the morning. So this was the place where I would live for the foreseeable future, until such time the little man was satisfied with my progress in the language! I had no choice but to settle down in this “heremetical” place and find a way to make myself as comfortable as possible. I was told that in the evening, round 6pm, we would have a beer together on the veranda of the house and then have supper. We would discuss, the little man and myself, how we would organize my future here in the “bush”. What brother Black had told me during my first breakfast came back rushing at me: “life in Uganda was not all that pleasant and that I would soon find out for myself about all the hardships I would encounter and be subjected to.” Well there I was in my cell, unpacking what little possessions I had, making up a bed and displaying my toiletries round the basin. I looked around for a water tap but there was none in sight ,and by the way I could not find any electrical appliance, nor switch nor socket. I learned very quickly that there was no electricity supply, and that candles or any type of parafin lamp would supply the needed light to the place. I realised this was an item which had not been bought in the morning but could be found in one of the nearby shops. So I wandered out and found a few water tanks and in my precious bucket I drew some water. The little man saw me and informed me that water was scarce, so I should not use too much. He was gracious enough to show me a room at the end of the building where a shower was installed and I could use it but there was only cold water. I was grateful for it and vowed I would indulge in a cold shower certainly as soon as my moving in was complete.

Six pm came quickly and the three of us sat at the veranda and enjoyed a cold beer called “Bell”. By God but was this good after such a hectic day! But the joy of the cold beer did not last long as I was informed by the little man that tonight the beer was free but that I was supposed, so as to enjoy further beers, to contribute to the expense of the precious liquid by buying, at regular intervals, a full crate of beer which would be shared by the three of us and eventual visitors. I looked puzzled and with my 100 shillings in my pocket I had no idea how long this fortune would last me if I was to buy a crate of beer at unspecified “regular intervals”. The conversation was rather a monologue as the little man was talking about all he had done in his missionary life, how he had almost become a bishop but that some male jealousy had prevented it, and how he was now in this small place which he had built with his own savings! What could I say except that I admired him! He seemed pleased with my reaction and this made the atmosphere more relaxed for the rest of the evening. Most likely the beer helped in this too! There is no need to tell you that after a light supper and some small talk with my friend, who I shall call Peter here, I went to bed and tried to sleep. My thought was “Oh my God where am I and what is going to happen?” I eventually fell asleep and woke up the next morning at the crack of dawn. What happened after that is another story for later!

Life in Uganda

The next day

December 1967

I was finally in Mbarara! And although it was a night of waiting and wondering, when finally around 6am day broke, I could actually see where I was. A big room, some 4 m by 4 m, with a small 80cm wide steel bed, one chair, and a small writing table. There were a few nails in the wall to hang my clothes, and in a corner a very small half round hand washbasin. I was craving for a shower of some kind but where to go? So I wandered down the long corridor of the second floor where I had landed the night before, and found a place which looked like a shower room. I heard water dripping and thought “I found it!” So I walked in – without a towel as there was nothing in the room – and found a cubicle where I heard noise. Suddenly the door opened and out stormed a small man. “I am Black” he said and disappeared. I peeped into the room and found a wet towel and ventured in for a quick shower – after all, a wet towel is better than no towel! Back to my room, which first I missed and entered a store, but finally I found my room, and changed into something more decent to wear than a wet towel.

The next big exercise was to find a place where I could get something to eat. In all logic, I thought an eating place would be on the ground floor. So I descended the staircase and moving on I heard more and more noises and kitchen smells wafting up the stairwell. Finally, I found myself at one end of a wide corridor at the end of which was a large double door. I ventured to it and could hear kitchen-type noises and smells. I knocked and entered, to find myself facing some twelve faces turning around at me, wondering who on earth I was. “We did not expect such a white face walking in”, they seemed to say! At the end of a long table sat a big man; I found out later his name actually was “Grandmaison”. For those not familiar with French the word means “big house”, and really the man was big! He turned out to be the administrator of the place and in charge of finances. Instinctively I moved towards him and shyly greeted him. He looked up from his plate and said ”are you the one who came in last night? It was a bit noisy?” What could I say, as the real noise had come from my “chauffeur” who had had the good idea, at 1.30am to offload his car of all the newspapers he had brought from Kampala. A bit noisy indeed!

In any case, I was invited to sit down and at the end of the table I found a space next to a little man, who I thought I had seen before. With a big smile he greeted me and said “ I am Brother Black”. That was it, the man of the shower! Now this sounded funny to me: he was a White Father Brother called Black! Was he joking or not? I found out later it really was his name and that he was the jack of all trades of the place, especially when it came to plumbing and electricity. Very useful indeed! Opposite him sat another man, a stark face devoid of any smile, who introduced himself as “Louis”. “I am the man of logistics here”, he said and continued with his breakfast ignoring my presence for the remainder of the exercise!

I sat there quietly drinking some light brown stuff they called coffee, with some bread which I found too sweet to my taste, and God knows if I have a sweet tooth. With that there were some hard boiled eggs and margarine, which I would see for the rest of my life in Uganda labelled “Blue Band”. Horrible stuff but what to do if you have no butter? I managed to down a few bits and pieces and even managed to have some sort of conversation with my neighbour Black. He immediately informed me that life in Uganda was not all that pleasant and that I would soon find out for myself about all the hardships I would encounter and be subjected to. But then what could I do but smile and simply say “I will see”. Just a few months later, the man “Black” left Uganda for good – perhaps the hardships proved too much for him!

Suddenly the big man at the table head stood next to me, towering over me, and with a big smile said “come to my office when you have finished your breakfast.” I jumped up immediately and followed him, afraid not to find where this mystery place, “his office”, would be. I will never forget the sight of it. At the end of another corridor, a dark place with a side office and two desks covered with all sorts of papers and files. He let me in and said I am the diocesan bursar and if you need something I will gladly help you. He turned out to be a very nice man and when I learned that he was French Canadian, we found some common ground as I had studied in Canada for four years. Conversation became so much easier and in a fatherly way he told me that he would help me to get acquainted to the place, but first I had to meet the boss of the place: the bishop. He was going to make an appointment for me and advised me to go out for a walk and visit the place and see for myself what kind of environment I would be living in for the foreseeable future. So out a-walking I went and what a pleasant surprise: green lawns, beautiful flowers and trees, and plenty of birds. Where had I really landed: was this the “promised land”? I would discover many more beauties as the years passed, but now I had to find my bearings and not stray too far away lest I not find my way back. Passing in front of a window, which was wide open, I heard a shout form inside “Michel can you come in”. It was the man “Grandmaison”, called Roland, who informed me that the bishop would meet me immediately. For making an appointment this was done in a record time I wondered what magic he had used. I managed to get back to his office without getting lost and together we walked to the boss’s office. Now you may have ideas of what appearance a bishop has, but in my case I was expecting someone with an stiff upper lip and oblivious to smile and charm. I was totally put off guard when we met as he greeted me in French and said “Je suis Jean Marie Ogez” He told me that he happened to be the bishop of this place but came originally from Zambia. “Welcome to Africa and especially Mbarara diocese. I heard about your first day in Uganda, and I am sorry but the guy who picked you up is “somewhat” special. As he was going to Kampala, I thought it was easier to ask him to pick you up than to send a special car to do so. I hope the trip was good?” Politely I nodded yes and thanked him for sending someone to pick me up! Today I might not be quite so kind, and might very well have ticked off my “chauffeur” for being late . But then when you are young and arrive at a place you have been looking for, even not knowing what it looked like, you accept quite a lot.

I wanted to be civil with the bishop, and had noticed a violin in the corner of his office. I asked him if he played the violin himself, I should have known of course, and he said flatly “yes”. Being French I was surprised at his cool approach to things. Maybe his years in Zambia had attached to him some British way of being! He went straight to the point as he had a lot of work and could not settle into a long conversation. But this would come later once we got to know one another better. I quote here verbatim what I can recall of his monologue. “You have come to Uganda. You are welcome. I have no authority over you as you first have to learn the language and it has been decided, by the powers that be, that you will go to a small bush parish, new in construction, called Bubangizi. The parish priest there, called Father Mischler, will teach you “Runyankole” and once he is satisfied about your knowledge of the language, he will let me know and you will fall under my jurisdiction and we will then see what we do with you. Roland, here present, will help you to buy the needed things for you to settle down in the place you are going to and he will take you there. I hope you will have an enjoyable time in Bubangizi.” Amen! The whole encounter with the bishop lasted exactly six minutes. I knew I was going to go to the “Bush” as they say here; I knew I would be there not speaking a word of the local language for some time, and I knew the learning experience would not be easy. This experience I will never forget, and I will summarize it in the next blogpost. But one thing was for sure: life was certainly going to be interesting!

More to follow soon.